Some thoughts on duct tape and plastic wrap
Knowing my background in anti-terrorism and force protection, some friends and family members have asked for my opinion on whether they should buy a stockage of duct tape and plastic wrap -- and whether they should build a safe room in their house. I usually qualify my advice by saying I was an MP
, not a Chemical Corps
officer. I know the general details of biological and chemical warfare, but not the intimate details that make these deadly things work. That said, I think this is good advice, and I wish there was more of it out there.
1. Will duct tape and plastic wrap protect my house?
Maybe. If you can use these materials to make an air-tight box in your house, then in theory, you can keep out any biological or chemical agent. Try it on a small scale -- take a decidedly non-airtight cardboard box and use these materials to seal it. Then put that box into a tank of water and see if any air bubbles escape. Do this again until you get it right. It's not easy work. Though very strong, duct tape is still somewhat porous; you need to layer these materials to achieve a complete seal. Plastic wrap is notoriously weak too; it rips and tears quite easily. If you can do this well enough to build an air-tight box that withstands the water-tank test, you're better than me. In any case, it's theoretically possible to build an air-tight container in your house to protect yourself against chemical or biological agents. It just takes a lot of effort -- and the type of engineering skill that usually comes with an MIT degree and lots of experience.
But there are a myriad of issues to be resolved next.
2. How will you get fresh air in/out of this safe room?
Without some filter mechanism, it will be impossible to refresh the air in your safe house. You can deal with this in several ways. One might stock oxygen tanks inside, though that may cause interesting overpressure issues if you release those pressurized tanks within your sealed room. (The overpressure may blow the seals on your tape) With some engineering expertise, you could add an air-filtration system with a HEPA filter and a carbon filter to screen out all chemical and biological agents (much like a gas mask does). But this would be difficult and costly.
3. How do you eat?
Assuming you have a perfectly sealed box and you can recirculate the air, you'll also have to eat and drink at some point. In theory, you can just stock some canned goods and bottled water and you're good to go. But how much do you stock? This is manageable, but it must be planned ahead of time. If the threat is real and your house is contaminated, you can't expect to step out of the box for a quick trip to the fridge. (Theoretically, you also have to plan for the removal of human waste, but I'll leave that to you)
4. How do you know when to get in/out of the box?
The answer here is far from clear -- this is the hardest question of all. Except for certain high-threat locations like the Pentagon and White House, we have no national chem/bio surveillance system
which would tell us there's been a nerve-gas or anthrax attack. Scary, huh? Chemical weapons would be detected by large numbers of casualties, and possibly through the signature of the delivery device. Police, fire and specialized National Guard units would outline the contaminated area and attempt to seal it off as best they could. But that would take time. If you're in that area, you may or may not get any warning of the chemical agent. You simply aren't going to get the real-time warning you need to get into the box fast enough to make a difference, unless you happen to have your own personal M8A1 Chemical Agent Alarm
- Biological agents are even trickier -- no one may know they're there until they start killing people in many cases. Until recently, the military didn't have a system for real-time detection and warning of biological agent. It does not -- the so-called BIDS system
. But it's not perfect, and it's not fielded all that widely. If news helicopters flew over Los Angeles and sprayed anthrax spores or some other nasty bug, we would not get the warning in time to hop into our sealed boxes. Indeed, we may not learn of this incident until the first casualties start walking into local emergency rooms.
5. How would you know it's 'all clear'?
Again, you wouldn't. No system exists today to go around to every neighborhood and decontaminate it after an attack. Even if such a system existed, how would you know your neighborhood had been decontaminated? In theory, TV or radio stations might broadcast such information, but would you be willing to trust the local news station with your life? In the military, we train to decontaminate personnel and critical equipment. But some areas themselves may stay contaminated until the agent dissipates naturally. This is especially true of so-called "persistent nerve agents
" like VX, which occurs as a gelatin-like substance and is one of the most lethal substances in existence. In the right weather, this stuff can persist for days or weeks. Luckily, however, this stuff is fairly static. If we know where the device was blown and we know the wind, we can predict where the agent will go. If you stay out of this hazardous area, you'll live. But if you're in the contaminated area and you're in your box, you may be stuck in a really bad place for some time.Recommendation
: Save your money and avoid the long lines at Home Depot -- don't buy the duct tape or plastic wrap. Even if you could solve all of these problems, it's still unlikely you'd get enough advance warning from the government to get into your "safe" house in time. Instead, your best bet is to listen to the news. If an attack happens, look for information about where it hit and where it's predicted to spread. Then do everything you can to avoid that area. I know it sounds simple. But often times, the simplest plans are the best ones.