The long term psychological implications of a chemical or biological terrorist attack may be more damaging than any acute physical effects, according to researchers from the UK and USA in this week's BMJ.
Professor Simon Wessely and colleagues argue that the main purpose of these weapons is to wreak destruction via psychological means - by inducing fear, confusion, and uncertainty in everyday life.
Even if the short term consequences of an attack with chemical or biological weapons turn out to be less than some of the apocalyptic scenarios currently being aired by the media, the long term disruptions may be worse than anticipated, say the authors.
They predict that because health officials cannot provide blanket assurances that no harm will result from brief or non-symptom producing exposure to toxic agents, frustration and then a growing distrust of medical experts and government officials may result, robbing state institutions of the trust they need to manage recovery.
Lastly, unconfirmed or controversial hypotheses about the health effects of exposure to chemical and biological weapons will probably become contentious scientific and media issues in the years ahead, as had occurred after numerous chemical and radiological incidents, the Gulf war, and the Balkans deployment, they conclude.