CBRN vs HazMat – essential distinction or elitism?

CBRN vs HazMat – essential distinction or elitism?

It’s something which has been bugging me for a long time, but today I feel compelled to form some coherent thoughts and put them out there, partly as catharsis, but also in the hope of instigating some debate.

I don’t see an valid reason for a distinction between CBRN and HazMat.


For non-specialist readers, this translates as “Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear” and Hazardous Materials”. Traditionally, these are largely considered separately by the Emergency Services and other responders. CBRN incidents being those of a deliberate or malicious nature, and HazMat the accidents. Even acknowledging that police and security services may find this distinction useful, even accidental incidents will be treated as potentially deliberate initially and will be investigated as crimes, albeit for civil rather than criminal prosecution.

Wikipedia, starting point for the masses, provides this info in it’s Google snippit.


Essentially saying that in addition to the intent aspects, that CBRN causes a larger number of casualties. Well, any emergency planner worth their salt will tell you that scale is just once facet of an incident. So lets have a look at some numbers…

I appreciate that non-emergency planners might not be as deeply familiar with the incidents in Bhopal (1984) and Chernobyl (1986), however, these were accidental (and therefore HazMat) incidents which caused extremely significant numbers of casualties and fatalities.

Firstly, looking at reports of casualty numbers from Bhopal…

Source Casualty Estimate
Supreme Court by the Union Government 558,125
Indian Council of Medical Research 50,000
New York Times 12,000

Even the lower estimate here, reported at the time of the event, would certainly be considered a mass casualty incident in the UK.

Assuming that if a CBRN incident can cause mass casualties, it also has the potential to cause mass fatalities. For variety, here’s some fatality statistics from Chernobyl, (also a HazMat incident).

Source Deaths Estimate
Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment  985,000
International Atomic Energy Agency 4,000
International Agency for Research on Cancer 16,000
Russian academy of sciences 200,000
Belarus national academy of sciences 93,000
Ukrainian national commission for radiation protection 500,000
Chernobyl’s Legacy: Health, Environmental and Socio-Economic Impacts 50

It’s not quite as simple to infer from these figures as some are projections and others studies into the cumulative number of fatalities since the incident (which raises interesting questions, perhaps for another post, about when is an incident truly over). However, virtually all of them represent a significant number of fatalities.

Lets now take a look at arguably the most high-profile “CBRN incident”, the 1995 release of Sarin in the Tokyo subway. This information is from the Tokyo Metro Company in 2005.

Fatalities 12
Casualties 5642
(of which hospitalised) 999
(of which outpatients) 4643

I’m aware that I’m not comparing like with like here, but I think it goes someway towards demonstrating that in terms of consequences, those resulting from non-malicious means can be just as significant as those from terrorism.

Referring to these incidents with a special name seems to imply that there is something special about them, and encourages elitism. Regardless of whether they are used maliciously or not, hazardous materials are precisely that, hazardous.

There may be some very specific operational responses which are different, however generally speaking, the response principles and resources are identical. We should try to avoid confusing the public (and responders) by having two terms which essentially mean the same thing.

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