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About Biological, Chemical, Radiological, and Nuclear Weapons

Agentes, enfermedades y otras amenazas (CDC)

Biological agents are organisms or toxins that have illness-producing effects on people, livestock and crops. Biological agents cannot always be detected easily and may take anywhere from several hours to several days to cause symptoms, making it almost impossible to know immediately that a biological attack has occurred. Some agents are contagious, and victims may need to be quarantined. Click on the links below to learn more about potential biological agents.



Chemical agents are poisonous gases, liquids or solids that have toxic effects on people, animals or plants. They are classified by their effect – nerve, blood, choking or blister. Chemical agents are more likely than biological agents to cause a rapid onset of symptoms, but some are odorless and tasteless and are difficult to detect. The severity of injuries a chemical weapon can cause depends on the type and amount of agent used, and the method and duration of exposure. Click on the links below to learn more about potential chemical agents.



Nuclear weapons can be categorized as two types: fissile, or explosive, and radiological. Radiological are the most likely choice of terrorists. They emit radiation alone, which destroy individual cells and can lead to “radiation poisoning.” The onset of symptoms requires days to weeks, and radiological materials are not easily recognized. Click here to learn more about radiation emergencies.


For the media:  Click here to get fact sheets on biological, chemical, radiological and nuclear weapons designed specifically for news reporters by the National Academies and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.