The danger hides in railroad cars that creep past sleeping towns in the night. Weary truck drivers speed it down I-15. It waits in WWI-vintage drums, stored or buried at Tooele Army Depot and Dugway Proving Ground.
The danger is toxic chemicals that could injure or kill anyone they touch.Two Utah hospitals spent Monday learning to deal with such chemicals. Dugway officials simulated a terrorist attack that "injured" 14 people.
Army officials "decontaminated" the patients, then flew one by helicopter to Utah Valley Regional Medical Center in Provo, and one to the University Medical Center in Salt Lake City. Both patients were made up to look like they had second-degree burns with blisters containing active mustard gas, and one had a simulated bullet wound to his chest.
"We want to be ready for a chemical disaster," Clark Caras, hospital spokesman, said. "We have railroad cars full of insecticides - this is a big farm area - and other chemicals. More chemicals are being transported on our highways - I-15 is a major artery for the West. There is always the possibility of a spill. You always hear about spills in other parts of the country that force the evacuation of thousands.
"And with the chemicals stored or being flown into Tooele Army base and Dugway, and it makes sense to have a drill to learn how to handle this kind of emergency."
Between 40 and 65 percent of the nation's chemical weapons are stored at Tooele Army Depot and Dugway Proving Ground, according to estimates. The military chose to drill on procedures for mustard gas decontamination because more can be done for these victims than for victims of many other chemicals. Some chemicals stored in Tooele will kill instantly, but damage from mustard gas exposure takes two to 10 hours to show up, officials say.
Mustard gas is a blistering agent used in WWI and WWII. It burns skin, eyes and lungs, but does not always kill contaminated people. It is used to stop armies by injuring some soldiers, who then need care from the remaining troops.
Bob Pagnani, coordinator of Dugway's Emergency Services lab, said mustard gas is still used in Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan. He told of five Afghan victims who were flown to the United States for treatment in a New York hospital. Even if victims have been decontaminated, their blisters will contain active mustard gas agent. Because crews didn't take precautions, 150 medical workers were contaminated and suffered burns.
Pagnani also told of cases where people were burned after touching farm equipment that had been contaminated decades before.
The drill Monday began at 8:30 a.m. at Tooele Army Depot when military personnel pretending to be terrorists "attacked" crews pretending to unload a shipment of mustard gas.
"We do this kind of drill all the time," said Capt. Clark Searle, a doctor and chief of Dugway Proving Ground's clinical-support section. "We take it as far as we can, but we don't have facilities for long-term care, so we decided to involve the hospitals in our drill."
The military helicopter and the patient with simulated blisters but no bullet wound arrived at Utah Valley Medical Center at noon. The education began instantly.
"The people who were supposed to wear the protective suits couldn't," Pagnani said. "The nurse couldn't work in the boots; they were way too big for her. And the other guy had a beard. You can't wear a beard in the suits, the face masks wouldn't seal."
Two different staff members suited up, and they wheeled the "victim" from the helicopter to an area set up on the sidewalk leading to the emergency entrance.
"Keep those people back," Pagnani told the security crew. "Anyone who crosses the line will be contaminated."
"It's only press people," Ron Kay, assistant director of support services, said.
Pagnani instructed crews to hose the victim down. When Staff Sgt. Jeffery Teel, playing the victim, let out a scream, and Pagnani asked if there was any "warmer" water available.
Crews simulated decontaminating Teel, and bandaged the blisters that hadn't been washed away by the hose water. Used supplies were double-bagged and set aside for disposal. Pagnani said in a real disaster, rinse water would have to be collected so it would not contaminate the sewer system.
He said the University Medical Center has a large container to collect contaminated water. The container can be lifted out with a crane and transported to a decontamination facility.
"We learned a lot," Pagnani said. "We learned what kind of information we have to provide to hospitals and what they need to tell us."
Wayne Watson, director of Utah Valley Medical Center's emergency room, said his staff already treats two or three chemical burn patients a week.
"We see a lot of burns to the eye area, but we want to be ready for bigger emergencies."
The staff videotaped the disaster, and Caras said the tape will be used for review and to train future emergency crews.
"We hope to become experts so victims from all over the world could be brought here. In the future, we hope to have an isolation room. Chemical injuries are a potential problem in this area, and we want to train our people to help victims while protecting themselves and the other patients from injury."