A biological attack is the intentional release of a pathogen (disease causing agent) or biotoxin (poisonous substance produced by a living organism) against humans, plants, or animals. An attack against people could be used to cause illness, death, fear, societal disruption, and economic damage. An attack on agricultural plants and animals would primarily cause economic damage, loss of confidence in the food supply, and possible loss of life. It is useful to distinguish between two kinds of biological agents:
- Transmissible agents that spread from person to person (e.g., smallpox, Ebola) or animal to animal (e.g., foot and mouth disease).
- Agents that may cause adverse effects in exposed individuals but that do not make those individuals contagious to others (e.g., anthrax, botulinum toxin).
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and The National Academies teamed up in 2003 to produce fact sheets on chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear attacks designed to help better prepare the media for the types of threats facing the nation.
Each fact sheet provides clear, concise information to the media and the public on the characteristics, dangers, and consequences associated with various types of attacks. Each fact sheet has been through a rigorous peer review process evaluated by independent members of the National Academies, many of whom are recognized as the nation's foremost experts in their field.