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CHEMICAL PLANT ACCIDENTS

Across the United States, approximately 15,000 facilities produce, use or store more than threshold amounts of chemicals identified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as posing the greatest risk to human health and the environment if accidently released into the air.1

These chemical plants are often located near high-density population areas. According to Greenpeace's calculations, there are at least 30 cities in 25 states containing 112 chemical facilities that threaten one million or more people in the event of a toxic release due to an accident or terrorist attack.2 (See map for state-by-state numbers. Click for larger version.)

SOURCE: GreenPeace, 2003.

The U.S. Public Interest Research Group estimates that 41 million Americans live "within range of a toxic cloud that could result from a chemical accident at a facility located in their home zip codes."3

And accidents do occur! On average, there are over 60,000 chemical accidents per year, just in the United States, resulting in more than 250 deaths. Dow Chemical alone had 2,562 accidents between 1999 and 2003.4

SHELTER-IN-PLACE OR EVACUATE?

Numerous examples of the effectiveness of sheltering-in-place have been cited over the years:5

  • Labarre, LA in 1961
    A 30-ton chlorine release immediately surrounded the house of a young family. After about 15-20 minutes, the father panicked and carried his young son outdoors. The rest of the family stayed inside. The family and the father survived, but the young boy died from the chlorine exposure he received outside.
  • Richmond, CA on July 26, 1993
    A tank car carrying oleum overheated and ruptured sending a cloud of sulfur trioxide into the air. The Contra Costa County Health Services Department reported that 22,000 people in the community sought medical attention, 22 were hospitalized. Employees of a nearby plant, in the direct path of the plume, sheltered in place and were not injured.
  • Nitro, WV on December 5, 1995
    A process vessel at an FMC chemical plant over-pressurized and released a phosphorus chloride compound into the diked area around the vessel. In the rain, a hydrochloric acid cloud was formed which drifted offsite into an adjacent office and commercial area. More than 800 employees of a neighboring chemical plant and several offices sheltered in place while the plume passed over the area. No injuries were reported. Businesses in the area had been trained in sheltering for employees.
  • Pittsburgh, CA in 1998
    At a refinery, an accident released 900 pounds of chlorine. About 7,000 people in the immediate community were alerted to shelter-in-place. One employee was injured in the incident, but no injuries were reported from offsite.

    The Richmond, California example is especially instructive. It notes that 22,000 people in the community sought medical assistance. Those kinds of numbers are enough to overwhelm any community's healthcare resources. In addition, physicians in the community who are called upon to respond to incidents involving uncontrolled chemical exposure are seldom prepared to do so, as physicians with special training in occupational and environmental medicine are in short supply and may not be readily available.6

Sources/Footnotes

  1. "Homeland Security: DHS Is Taking Steps to Enhance Security at Chemical Facilities, But Additional Authority is Needed," GAO-06-150, January 27, 2006, pg.9.
  2. http://www.greenpeace.org/usa/news/does-a-chemical-plant-in-your
  3. Eric Pianin. "Study Assesses Risk of Attack on Chemical Plant," Washington Post. March 12, 2002; U.S. Public Interest Research Group: "Too Close to Home: Chemical Accident Risks in the United States," July 22, 1998.
  4. http://www.studentsforbhopal.org/DirtyDow.htm
  5. National Institute for Chemical Studies, "Effectiveness of Shelter-In-Place: Examples from across the Country," PDF.
  6. Guidotti, Tee L., MD, "Managing the Medical Response to a Major Industrial Accident Involving Uncontrolled Chemical Exposure," University of Alberta, Canada, 2006, pg. 1