September 05, 2013
Riya V. Anandwala

SLU Expert: Defense Against Chemical Attacks Vital to United States

ST. LOUIS - The chemical attacks in Syria could lower the bar for use of chemical weapons by terrorist organizations or rogue nations that could eventually pose a threat to the United States, says Alexander Garza, M.D., associate dean for public health practice and associate professor of epidemiology at Saint Louis University.

Alex Garza
Alexander Garza, M.D. joins Saint Louis University as the associate
dean for public health practice and associate professor
of epidemiology.

"These types of weapons were universally repudiated by the international community for very good reasons. They serve no purpose other than to kill indiscriminately in horrific ways and sow terror among the population," said Garza, former assistant secretary of health affairs and chief medical officer at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

When an event of this nature occurs, Garza says it has the potential to open the door to other terrorist elements or rogue nations that may have hesitated in the past. "If these types of chemical weapons get in the wrong hands it creates a dangerous situation that could be a potential threat to the U.S. as well," said Garza.

"It's highly unlikely that something like that would happen here; however, it is not impossible. This is what we refer to as a low probability, high impact threat. Although the risk is low, the impact can be devastating and consequently it is important for U.S. to focus on security measures to prevent acquisition, mitigate the consequences and prepare our nation to respond," he said.

In addition to preventing the use of these chemicals against the Syrian population, it's important for U.S. intelligence to know who has control of these chemicals and prevent them from falling into the wrong hands creating a potential threat to the U.S., Garza said.

"In the event that a chemical weapon is used in the US, the important aspects are mitigating the attack such as using detection technology in high threat, densely populated areas and also training people to respond in such an event," he said. "The problem with a chemical attack is that there is little to no notice that the attack is taking place. Usually the first sign of the attack is people falling sick, so it is extremely important to make sure the first responders are well trained and equipped to handle these situations."

Garza says the effects of such attacks are not just physical.

"A chemical attack will not only have physical effects, but also psychological and economic impacts. If you think about recent terrorist related attacks such as the anthrax letters of 2001 or even the Boston bombing this past spring, there were huge economic impacts that go above and beyond the immediate impact on life and property," Garza said.

He points to some concerns regarding the response to these weapons by President Barrack Obama.

"The President is walking a fine line. He doesn't want to bring the U.S. into another conflict in the Middle East, however, he has to show that this type of behavior is unacceptable among law-abiding countries," Garza said. "And he is also putting those countries that have not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, as well as other terrorist organizations, on notice that these types of weapons will not be tolerated."

The Saint Louis University College for Public Health and Social Justice is the only academic unit of its kind among the nearly 250 Catholic institutions of higher education in the United States. With a focus on finding innovative and collaborative solutions for complex global health problems, the College offers nationally recognized programs in global public health, social work, health management and health policy, epidemiology, biostatistics, environmental and occupational health, behavioral science and health education, emergency management, biosecurity and disaster preparedness, and criminology and criminal justice.

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