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Clin Lab Med. 2001 Sep;21(3):593-605.

Toxins as weapons of mass destruction. A comparison and contrast with biological-warfare and chemical-warfare agents.

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Department of Preventive Medicine and Biometrics, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, National Capital Consortium Residency in Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Bethesda, Maryland, USA.


Toxins are toxic chemical compounds synthesized in nature by living organisms. Classifiable by molecular weight, source, preferred targets in the body, and mechanism of action, they include the most potent poisons on the planet, although considerations of production, weaponization, delivery, environmental stability, and host factors place practical limits on their use as WMD. The two most important toxin threats on the battlefield or in bioterrorism are probably botulinum toxin (a series of seven serotypes, of which botulinum toxin A is the most toxic for humans) and SEB, an incapacitating toxin. Ricin and the trichothecene mycotoxins, including T-2 mycotoxin, are of lesser concern but are still potential threats. Botulinum toxin is a neurotoxin, ricin and trichothecene mycotoxins are membrane-damaging proteins, and SEB is a superantigen capable of massive nonspecific activation of the immune system. The clinical intoxications resulting from exposure to and absorption (usually by inhalation) of these agents reflect their underlying pathophysiology. Because of the hybrid nature of toxins, they have sometimes been considered CW agents and sometimes BW agents. The current trend seems to be to emphasize their similarities to living organisms and their differences from CW agents, but examination of all three groups relative to a number of factors reveals both similarities and differences between toxins and each of the other two categories of non-nuclear unconventional WMD. The perspective that groups toxins with BW agents is logical and very useful for research and development and for administrative and treaty applications, but for medical education and casualty assessment, there are real advantages in clinician use of assessment techniques that emphasize the physicochemical behavior of these nonliving, nonreplicating, intransmissible chemical poisons.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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