Chemical Emergencies: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

Don’t kid yourself. Just because we don’t hear about Bhopal-sized chemical releases, doesn’t mean our workplaces are safe from chemical emergencies.

On Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2009, there was an explosion at a chemical plant just outside of Houston in Pasadena, Texas, that injured two workers. You may not have heard about this incident be-cause there was, very fortunately, no off-site toxic release or loss of life from this tank explosion. Unfortunately, catastrophic damage usually is what it takes for the dangers of a chemical release to make serious national news. Since this explosion in Pasadena, there have been others: a chemical leak at a natural gas-processing plant in Texas, a hazardous materials spill in North Carolina, another deadly gas leak in China – the list is long.

Toxic releases are an on-going problem, whatever the magnitude. Dec. 3, 2009, marked the 25th aanniversary of the tragedy in Bhopal, India, when a methyl isocyanate cloud was released from a nearby industrial site. Thousands of people and animals died from this catastrophic toxic chemical event, and 25 years later, it is remembered as one of the worst industrial disasters ever – and one that could have been avoided. It is this kind of disaster that puts these recent events like the one in Pasadena, Texas, in perspective – simply, that it could have been much worse. This is both cause for relief and concern. Emergency events, big and small, happen on a daily basis – whether we hear about them or not. Of course, one must acknowledge the positive contribution chemicals have on our way of life, but we also must be aware of the real potential dangers they present, both to people and to the environment. In the wake of these recent toxic releases and the 25th anniversary of the devastating event in Bhopal, it is important to reflect on a number of questions that should be examined from a historical perspective and for future planning.

The answer to that question is yes and no. The same chemicals exist along with similar industrial environments, so the potential for a major toxic chemical release remains present. As previously mentioned, chemical releases of one form or another occur every day, although fortunately, they have been nowhere near the severity of the Bhopal incident. That being said, private industries, government agencies and, to a lesser extent, the general public now are more aware of the potential risks. Some corporations and government entities have taken proactive steps to improve planning and response regarding chemical events. This alone adds a certain level of safety.

But are those steps and increased awareness enough?
I believe not, for we still are at risk until every industrial facility that handles significant volumes of toxic substances invests in the three building blocks of effective emergency response: the human element, the preparedness element and the technological so8lutions elements. Until private sector companies and government emergency management and response organizations at all levels activate these three building blocks, the danger remains. The corporate and public sectors must work individually and together to do a better job of protecting society from the ever-present dangers of toxic chemical releases. The job of protecting the public certainly is not easy, and diligently must be undertaken to prevent future chemical tragedies and the resulting loss of life. While general awareness has increased in the last 25 years, the explosion in Pasadena, Texas, got little national coverage – largely due to its lack of “impact” in terms of destruction. lack of “impact” in terms of destruction. This can lead to the general public thinking that events like Bhopal are becoming less likely, which is not the whole truth.

Chemicals can present a very real danger to life and property if they are not properly managed, and all chemical events are not created equal. With the ever-present threat of accidental and deliberate chemical releases, what we have learned from Bhopal is the need to remain vigilant and to better pre-pare for potential chemical events. As for the plant explosions and releases, it points to the potential hazards faced by plants; those agencies responding to such events and the neighboring communities every day; and the value in ensuring that the general public is aware of these risks and understandswhat is being done to help curtail the effects of a toxic event.

There are many public and private sector initiatives that either have been considered or undertaken to prevent future large-scale toxic chemical events. These include enhancing industrial facility security, using chemicals with lower levels of toxicity, storing smaller volumes of toxic chemicals and other important safety steps. Some companies and government agencies in the United States and internationally are adopting new or enhanced technologies to anticipate, detect and manage a chemical emergency. It’s all about effective, informed decision making. It can and does save lives.

Yet, we can’t help wonder why some corporations and government agencies still resist adopting best technologies and methods to manage such events. Why is the use of such systems not mandated in situations where a large number of people are at risk? What if the event in Texas ad resulted in an off-site toxic release? Would the facility have been prepared to respond quickly enough to protect residents, business and the local environment?

There are steps that still need to be taken by the industry, government and communities to properly prepare for toxic chemical events today, including:

  1. Knowing if and where a toxic chemical release could occur in the surrounding areas.
  2. Plan and prepare for the possibility of a chemical release. (This should be done by facility operators and individuals alike.)
  3. Take a proactive stance by investing in the three aforementioned building blocks of effective chemical emergency management.

We must balance the need for chemicals in our daily lives with the proactive steps necessary to address the potential dangers those chemicals present. This dichotomy dictates investment in human resources, preparation and response procedures and advanced technological solutions that will protect lives, property and the environment should a release occur.

In the final analysis, the lessons learned from large-scale chemical events such as Bhopal, and the regular ongoing warning and reminder events like those hitting the small news circuits, recently allow us to be better prepared for chemical releases of all sizes. These events also remind us to use available technology to its fullest to aid in not only the preparation for an event, but for any required response. These lessons must never be forgotten. Loss of life is avoidable, and we should do everything in our power to ensure that our communities and industrial settings are safe.

Note: A version of this article appeared in the February 2010 issue of EHSToday, authored by Chris Cowles, it has been adapted for digital reprint.

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