My dear grandma Cora always grew geraniums — red geraniums, to be specific. Nearly every time I went to visit her she had pots of them flowering outside the front door. I would gently stroke the leaves and breathe in that unmistakable geranium smell. To this day I love the smell of geraniums so much I grow them myself — all year round.
Now I’ve discovered that retaining the memory of that smell could help save lives. The same holds true for the smell of garlic, horseradish and other common odors. If suddenly detected in the wrong place at the wrong time, it could signal that a chemical weapons attack is under way.
Look, I’m not one of those doomsday planners. I figure when it’s my time to go, then I’m ready to see what’s next. But after a conversation with a 30-year veteran of law enforcement named Rod Davis of First Responder Prep — a man who applies smell science to public safety — I came to realize how vulnerable we all are.
Our world is full of chemical weapons. Some were manufactured as far back as World War I and still exist today. Newer arsenals have added to the total number and increased the possibility of mass murder. Syria, pressured by the United Nations, says it is currently in the process of getting rid of 1,200 tons of chemical weapons. We know there were all sorts of chemical weapons developed for use during the Iran/Iraq war in the 1980s. In the early ’90s, our Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm troops discovered massive Iraqi chemical weapons stockpiles. North Korea is suspected of having a stockpile, too.
In this age of random and deadly terrorist attacks here in the United States, what would stop a determined criminal from using a chemical weapon instead of a gun or a homemade bomb? Law enforcement rushing to the scene would likely not have personal protective equipment with them — gas masks or rubber suits — and they would have to rely on all their training and their senses to keep themselves and the public safe.
As Davis puts it, “Science has proven that our sense of smell is the only sense directly hardwired to the brain.” So this former police chief and commander of criminal investigations has come up with a set of 8 x 10 reusable training cards embedded with a near-permanent “rub-for-scent” component that helps emergency teams memorize the deadly smells. Teaching first responders those smells ahead of any attack, says Davis, could spell the difference between life and death.
Davis’ patent-pending idea has already been marketed to police, fire and public safety offices nationwide. He says he has had interest from an unidentified Middle Eastern country that wants to use his scent technology expertise to train their military to use all their senses when responding to emergency situations.
Davis says he came up with his idea of a pack of carry-along cards a few years ago while attending an emergency response training session. “The instructor told us that many of the most common chemical weapons give off smells ... like geraniums,” he told me on the phone from his home office in Mechanicsville, Va. “The officer next to me leaned over and whispered, 'Gee, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a geranium, let alone smelled one!’”
Davis researched the world’s stockpiles and came up with the top eight chemical weapons with distinctive odors. Those are the scents embedded in his training cards.
For example, did you know that the lethal chemical Cyclo-sarin smells like peaches? It can cause seizures, paralysis, respiratory failure and death.
The same happens with another nerve agent called Tabun, which has a decidedly fruity odor.
Hydrogen Cyanide smells like almonds. It is so extremely toxic and immediately fatal to humans that it has been used in gas chamber executions.
As the name indicates, Hydrogen Sulfide smells like sulfur or rotten eggs. If exposed to high enough levels, it can be immediately lethal.
If you suddenly and inexplicably smell the odor of newly mowed hay, you may be in the vicinity of a release of Phosgene, which was used as a chemical weapon in both World War I and II. It still exists in the world, attacks the respiratory system and is fatal.
The chemical Sulfur Mustard can smell like either garlic or onions. It doesn’t kill people, but it incapacitates them almost immediately and results in the need for prolonged, intensive medical care.
And, finally, the blister agent Lewisite. It is an extremely toxic arsenic-based liquid that attacks human tissue, eyes and lungs and smells like Grandma Cora’s geraniums.
Some readers are surely thinking, “Good grief, don’t put the idea of using a chemical weapon in some madman’s mind!” But, please, understand, many of those who hate America already have access to these agents. And if you think the distance between our country and theirs will prove to be a deterrent — I suggest you think again.
We need to talk about this stuff. We need to be prepared to respond to all sorts of threats. And chemical-based armaments are the most readily available and most often used weapon of mass destruction in the world. Training with scent technology just makes good sense.
Are first responders in your area ready?
— Diane Dimond is the author of Be Careful Who You Love: Inside the Michael Jackson Case. Contact her at [email protected], follow her on Twitter: @DiDimond, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.