Skip to main content
Salisbury cathedral's spire. 123 metres high, you know!
Image Source:

The social and economic impact of chemical weapons attacks

Dan Kaszeta

The use of a chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear (CBRN) weapons by terrorists has long been considered a credible danger. For a long time, it was difficult to draw broad conclusions from the relatively rare occurrences of such acts using CBRN materials. The Tokyo subway incident (1995), the Anthrax incidents in the USA (2001), the Litvinenko poisoning (2006), and the Salisbury nerve agent incidents (2018) give us some basis to draw broader conclusions as to the overall impact that such events have on communities and society.

Understandably, much media coverage and commentary focus on the actual immediate impact, such as deaths, injuries, and who perpetrated the attack. The long-term social and economic impacts are often not discussed in detail, or if they are, it is sometimes in a cursory manner. However, the Salisbury incident is starting to change this dynamic. Salisbury will be an interesting case study for years to come.

Focus on fatalities is a natural human instinct, but in every single one of these four incidents, the number of dead was low. Indeed, relative to the toxicity of the material involved, the number of deaths was very low indeed. Based only on the toxicology, there was enough Sarin used in the Tokyo subway to kill many thousands. However, the practical and logistical factors involved in the dispersion in all four of these cases meant that toxicity in the field was not the same as toxicity in lab animals. I have dealt with this issue in several other articles here on this site. But the actual impact of such acts of terrorism is well above and beyond.

Direct costs

First of all, the direct costs of dealing with an incident are important. There is direct damage to life and health, which has a direct cost for the health sector. The policeman who was poisoned in the Skripal attack lost his home and possessions and still bears the mental scars. The ongoing use of time and resources related to a terrorism investigation will have a financial impact on emergency services and security agencies, as personnel costs mount. The Salisbury incidents are believed to have cost Wiltshire Police an additional £7.5 million.

The direct cost of decontamination is not inconsequential. In the case of the 2001 Anthrax terrorism, at least 42 locations were deemed to have some level of contamination. The direct costs of decontamination were estimated to be around $320 million, the majority of which was paid by the US government as the majority of the contamination was on federal property. Note that this figure does not include property damage or replacement of furnishings, as many of the decontamination methods are harmful to various kinds of materials. The decontamination costs for Salisbury are estimated to be in the tens of millions of pounds. Costs for the Tokyo Sarin clean up and the radiological cleanup after the Livtvinenko murder are known to be high, but precise figures are difficult to obtain. For those interested in both the technical and financial details of the Anthrax decontamination in 2001, they are explored in detail in my article in the Journal of Terrorism and Cyber Insurance. It should also be noted that in all of the situations mentioned, the amount of material used was small in comparison to military-scale quantities. Even the Tokyo Sarin attack was only a few litres. A larger use of materials could easily drive the costs higher.

In many places, the issue of who will do the decontamination is still relevant. Within the UK, there is a programme called the Government Decontamination Service (GDS) which provides for contractors to do the cleanup after a CBRN incident. Yet, somehow, this programme failed to perform after the Salisbury incidents. Indeed, Public Health England and the military were brought in. It is a major question as to why the GDS did not perform in Salisbury.

The issue of decontamination is complicated by a general lack of an accepted standard. How clean is clean enough? How do you know when you are done decontaminating? What is the acceptable level of contamination? The public answer is often zero. But detection and identification instruments have minimum levels of sensitivity and nobody can ever assure that every molecule or spore is gone. So, as nobody can tell if all of the hazards is gone, then people must agree on what level of a substance is permissible. This is the subject of many technical and scientific discussions.

Who pays for decontamination? In the UK, the unfortunate victim does. As a general matter of UK government policy, the property owner is responsible for cleanup costs in the event of deliberate use of CBRN materials. Unfortunately, CBRN hazards are largely excluded from general insurance cover. It is available as a special product, but it is expensive and it is likely that general households and businesses in places like Salisbury have not shopped around for chemical weapons attack cover… Insurers can easily envisage situations where large CBRN incidents could easily bankrupt the entire insurance industry, so they are quite sparing with such cover. However, the government could be expected to underwrite some of the expenses and has done so in the past. One way or the other, taxpayers bear the economic burden of terrorism.

Indirect impacts

The intangible and indirect impacts can be serious to a community or society. Contamination causes loss of use of residential or commercial property, which has both direct and indirect economic impact. First, houses, offices, and businesses can be physically off-limits, behind police cordons and under decontamination. Not every family or business can economically survive lengthy displacement. Second, and just as important, people may not want to go back once premises are re-opened.  Perhaps this can be taken as a form of psychological contamination that leaves residue long after the physical contamination has been removed or neutralized.

The 2001 Anthrax attacks were carried out principally through the US Postal Service. Postal employees and facilities were most seriously affected by illness and contamination. One US government study estimates that the US Postal system lost about 2 billion US dollars in revenue as people simply stopped or reduced their use of the mail.

Loss to business is a serious problem after any kind of terrorism. Conventional terrorism has affected businesses in places like Borough Market in Central London, due to police cordons keeping staff and customers away from cafes and shops.  Incidents requiring decontamination only make the closure period longer. It is too early to do a total assessment of the impact to businesses in Salisbury, but so far, even though a very small amount of nerve agent was used, the commercial and economic impact has been strongly felt. Such impact is more broadly felt amongst small business owners as opposed to chains and large corporations. In particular, Salisbury is reliant on tourism income. Salisbury Cathedral, arguably the main draw in the city centre, has seen its visitor figures fall since the Novichok incidents. Other attractions suffer as well. The Salisbury Museum has seen dramatic falls in visits in comparison to 2017.

Any business could be impacted by CBRN terrorism. But the nature of the economy is such that some types of businesses are more resilient than others. Office-based workers can work from home or report to alternative sites. But tourism and hospitality cannot react the same way. The tourism sector is far more reliant on physical footfall and individual retail expenditures which can easily be hindered by police cordons and decontamination of premises. But this has further effects on things like restaurants, pubs, cafes, and related business. There has a further knock-on effect as small businesses cannot pay their staff. In turn, local staff cannot spend money in their local community. Entire communities can suffer. Bearing in mind that less than 100mg of material appears to have been used at the Skripal residence, one can assess that the economic impact is well out of proportion to any property damage or direct health effects.

Not every impact is directly measurable. Chemical and biological terrorism plays on human fears. Humans have deep-seated fears of poisoning and illness. Radiation poses an invisible peril that we cannot see, taste, or feel. With CBRN weapons and terrorism, there is a definite phenomenon whereby the risks perceived by the public often outweigh the actual risks present in the environment. Indeed, the psycho-social aspects of CBRN terrorism serve as a force-multiplier for terrorists. The 2001 anthrax attacks (example) and the Tokyo Sarin attacks (example) have been the subject of serious studies of psychological impact. Serious study of impacts in Salisbury, such as increases in anxiety or depression, will no doubt occur but nothing substantive has been published yet. Reports that over 100 police have received psychological assistance in the months after the Salisbury incidents may be an early indicator of a broad trend.

The loss of business revenue in Salisbury is only partially due to actual contamination and investigative concerns. Much of it is due to people simply deciding not to visit. Whether that is directly due to fear or a more subtle effect broadly along the lines of “well, we can go somewhere else this weekend… let’s go to Stonehenge some other time.” There’s no credible operational or logistical scenario in which any chemical threat was present in Salisbury Cathedral. Yet people stopped going there for a while. Such fear and anxiety is often misplaced, or founded on poor understanding of basic facts. The general public is generally undereducated on the technicalities of CBRN terrorism. The situation gets further complicated by the circulation of misinformation, disinformation and conspiracy theories.

Once again, business interruption is a risk that can often be mitigated by business insurance. However, many of the same restrictions and exclusions due to CBRN incidents apply in this area as well, and insurers have identified a coverage gap.  Furthermore, business just being down because people aren’t walking past is not the same thing as being forcibly shut because you are behind a police cordon. Such an eventuality is harder to insure against. 

Lessons to be learned

There is a clear need to find ways to improve society’s overall resilience in such scenarios. These can range from improved crisis communication with the public, measures to combat misinformation and disinformation, schemes to subsidize insurance cover, high visibility visits to affected areas by political leaders, and economic measures to assist affected communities. All have a role to play in recovery. Some efforts have already been undertaken in Salisbury, but in the broad scheme of things, it is still early days. The resilience of Salisbury will make for an interesting case study in the next few years. But there is no question in my mind that the attack on the Skripals was an attack on Salisbury.

Share this article