CPJ safety advisory: use of chemical agents in the Mosul offensive

A dozen civilians, including women and children, have been treated for suspected exposure to a blistering chemical agent following an Islamic State (IS) attack on East Mosul, Iraq, last week, according to news reports. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) said over the weekend that they are investigating the incident. Today, the Emergencies Response Team (ERT) at the Committee to Protect Journalists issued the following safety advisory on chemical weapon exposure for journalists covering or planning to cover the Mosul offensive.

IS is believed to have used chemical weapons more than 50 times since 2014, according to a November 2016 report by the London-based research and intelligence gathering group IHS. When Iraqi armed forces retook Mosul University in January 2017, they found weapons making labs and a tank of chemicals believed to be mustard gas, according to news reports.

“[IS] not only have the expertise, but the precursor materials to manufacture mustard gas in large quantities. The tactic seems to be when in desperation use the mustard agent because it is very effective against Iraqi and Peshmerga forces, many of whom lack respiratory protection,” Hamish de Bretton Gordon, a chemical weapons expert and Managing Director of the security firm Avon Protection, told CPJ. “Its primary military purpose is to deny ground and cause casualties, not kill people. However, if it is inhaled in its gaseous form then it can be fatal.”

Mustard agent causes persistent blistering to skin and mucous membranes. Exposure symptoms also include redness in the eyes, irritation, vomiting and coughing.

A number of media outlets with staff on the ground in Mosul have given their journalists chemical weapon training that focuses on how to don personal protective equipment and decontamination. But even with this training, covering any sort of chemical attack is extremely dangerous.

All journalists covering the Mosul offensive, including local and international freelancers, are encouraged to purchase appropriate respiratory protection. Escape hoods or gas masks with CBRN canisters are a bare minimum. Other protective equipment to consider are overboots, tyvek suits, rubber gloves and a durable plastic bag to dispose of contaminated clothing.

Avon Protection has issued the following advisory to media crews operating on the ground with the information for journalists at risk of exposure to chemical agents in Mosul. CPJ encourages journalists working in Mosul to follow it:

  1. Avoid the affected area where possible, especially areas previously targeted.
  2. Carry an escape hood at all times in the region.
  3. Carry PPE in vehicles (overboots, suits, gloves, Decontamination mitts).
  4. Keep across the weather, especially wind direction. Always stay upwind of an affected area.
  5. If someone shows signs of difficulty in breathing, redness of skin, extract cross wind to clean area, remove clothing, decontaminate suspected contaminated areas of skin, wash with lots of water and remove to medical facility. If contamination is in eyes, flush eyes out with copious amounts of water.
  6. Seek medical assistance.

Please note that since the beginning of the Mosul crisis, the WHO and the ICRC have been working with local health authorities to ensure preparedness for the use of chemical weapons. As part of a chemical weapons contingency plan, 120 clinicians have been trained and provided with equipment to safely decontaminate and stabilise patients before they are referred to pre-identified hospitals for further care.

West Erbil Hospital, also known as Rojhawa Emergency hospital, is the main hospital for treating chemical casualties. Field decontamination facilities–for instance in the Sheikhan district–and units for the stabilization of contaminated in all field hospitals have also been put in place.

For additional information on medical centers in the region please see: http://www.dfr.gov.krd/p/p.aspx?p=63&l=12&s=040100&r=374.

For additional safety information for those covering the Mosul offensive, please read: