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Disaster Management

Chemical Leaks/Spill Over

As the world is making rapid advancements in the field of industrialization, there are huge chemicals plants – dealing with all kinds of chemicals. Some of these chemical plants deal with seemingly simple (non-hazardous) chemicals, while, some other chemicals could be dealing with hazardous materials.

Risks associated with chemicals and chemical industries include:

  • Risks due to blast of certain equipments involved in large chemical plants, e.g. boiler etc.
  • Risks due to leakage of chemicals wherever they are stored/transported/used in small quantities etc.

Sometimes, seemingly harmless chemicals can also turn out to be hazardous, after they come in contact with other chemicals.

Depending upon the toxicity of the material involved, the most common kinds of problems that might be caused due to a chemical leak/plant accident might include:

  1. Blast and explosion
  2. Irritation to eyes, throats etc.
  3. Pollution and/or poisoning of air, water-bodies etc.
  4. Impact on vegetation and animals (including fishes in water-bodies)
  5. Difficulty in breathing etc.
  6. Fumes
  7. Heat and/or fire etc.

Usually, chemical plants employ certain bare minimum safety measures. The amount of safety measures employed by chemical plants is a function of:

  1. Risk and hazard associated with the specific chemical plants
  2. Local laws and regulations
  3. Vigilance level of local community
  4. Technical competence of the plant managers
  5. The company’s own standard of ethics –vs- short-term profitability decisions etc.

However, the places where there are practically no safety measures include:

  • While transportation. More often than not, most truck drivers have no knowledge of what they might be carrying, the detailed chemical property of the material they are carrying, the reactivity of their cargo with other elements etc. Hence, if an untoward incident happens during the transportation of chemicals, there might not be anybody with a good knowledge of what is to be done.
  • Places where the chemicals might be stored, e.g. trading godowns etc. Again, in such cases, it is quite likely that the traders dealing in these chemicals might not be aware of the reactivity of these chemicals with other agents.

Thus, if an accident involving chemicals occurs during transportation etc., its best to stay away – unless, you are very clear as to what is the material involved, and, its specific properties – as well as how to mitigate the situation.

However, if there is large chemical plant, or, storage around you, you should take adequate precaution.

Irrespective of the amount of sophistication, safety and control measures that a plant can take, the fact is that accidents do happen – even in most advanced factories.

It should also be understood that irrespective of the amount of care etc., sometimes, another disaster – say, an earthquake, typhoon etc. could cause large scale structural damage; also, on structural damage page, there is a ref. to chemical leaks etc. Please link this page at that place), causing leaks etc. in pipes, tanks etc.

Usually, minor incidents of chemical discharges/leaks leading to irritation, coughing etc. are reported almost on a daily basis.

However, once in a while, mass-scale poisonings have also been witnessed. The most notoriously known incident is of-course Bhopal Gas Tragedy. Some of the other major incidents involving chemical units include:

  • Contamination of the Songhua River in China – following an explosion at the Jilin Chemical Industrial Company plant in Novement 2005.
  • Gasoline pipeline explosion at Ihado in Nigeria in May 2006
  • Explosion at Azote de France (AZF) factory near Toulouse, France which released Ammonium Nitrate in September 2001

Most people believe that it is the responsibility of the factory owner and the managers to maintain adequate safety precautions within the factory. Thus, why should they bother to take these precautions? While, it is true that the factory has to take the ultimate responsibility, the fact is that the community in the immediately locality has to bear the brunt. Hence, it is in the interest of the local community to keep adequate precautions. In most large incidents, even if the owner/manger is punished (even to the extent of being jailed), the harm is already done to the local population. Thus, it is in the interest of all the stakeholders that chemical accidents are prevented, and, even if they do occur, the loss is minimal; because, irrespective of where the ultimate responsibility lies, the suffering will be for the local population.

The preparedness for people around large chemical plants and storage facilities should include:

  1. Be aware as to what are the kind of chemicals being used/produced/stored/handled at the facility
  2. Besides knowing the names of these various chemicals, the people should also learn, the toxicity level of these chemicals, their important properties, including reactivity with other chemicals found/used/stored in the nearby areas
  3. Be aware of the various processes/machines etc. involved which could create a blast/explosion etc.
  4. Installing a mechanism for alerting, when something goes wrong. This is for the factory to alert the local community that something has gone wrong. This could be as simple as siren based system
  5. Installing a mechanism for the community to be able to alert the factory staff, in case they notice something going wrong (e.g. unusual discharge from chimney and/or any other kind of liquid/gaseous vent/outlet etc.). This could be as simple as the phone nos. for the important factory department being available easily with many people in the community.

Now, the biggest question is: how do people learn about most of the above information. Clearly, the best people to impact this knowledge are the factory personnel themselves, who are most knowledgeable in these matters.

However, in general, most factories are very wary of sharing such information with the local community. The reason is very simple. With a high increase in sensitivity of local community towards hazardous material/activities in the vicinity, most factory personnel are afraid of arming the local community with this kind of knowledge. Many of them fear that once the community is aware of the actual level of hazards, they might create more problems by protesting against the activities of the factory.

Thus, a first step towards achieving the above goal is establishing a very cordial and trusting relationship between the community and the factory. This is easier said than done. This trust can develop slowly over a long period. This will happen only if both the sides realize that the development of such relationship and information sharing is beneficial to both the parties. More importantly, they have to realize that they both depend on each other for survival and sustenance.

A community gets benefited from large industrial activity in the form of:

  1. Jobs
  2. Entrepreneurship opportunities, through providing service to the factory
  3. Improvement in general economic condition, resulting in less lawlessness, mugging, theft, stealing etc. This last factor impacts even those who might not be related to the industrial unit in any direct manner.

The factory gets benefited from the local community, in the form of:

  1. labor
  2. Services being available locally etc.
  3. Besides, a peaceful and cooperative community is helpful to the factory’s smooth functioning

Once basic level of trust has been established, the relationship can be taken to the next level, where, the factory personnel start sharing details of hazards/risks with the local community. Here, again, both the parties have to realize that they both are in a win-win situation with sharing this kind of information.

The community gets benefited as it gets equipped with the real information, and, is able to minimize losses, if and when an accident occurs

The factory gets benefited as the community is now better understanding and appreciative of the situation. If community members can take care of themselves, factory personnel can concentrate on bringing the situation under control. Otherwise, while they have an ugly accident on their hand, many times, some senior officers are involved in pacifying community members etc. – while, at that instant they should be working towards fixing the actual issue which triggered the event.

If this level of trust is established and information is adequately shared with the community:

  1. People should be able to recognize the onsite of a chemical leak etc. This could be through information communicated by the factory (say: some kind of siren etc.), or, through observation of some other visible symptoms (change in colour/quantity/any other physical characteristics of discharge).
  2. If required, inform the factory personnel – so that they can take corrective action.
  3. Now, depending on the nature of the discharge, you might want to stay indoors (say: some gas, which causes irritation, but, is expected to blow over with wind), or, maybe evacuate immediately (if its highly poisonous) etc. Since the response range could be huge – and what is best course of action in one kind of gas could be fatal in another kind of gas – hence, its best that the nature of chemicals involved is already known in advance – including the most appropriate response.

Those who stay in the vicinity of transport corridors handling large amount of chemicals – they should also arm themselves with knowledge of the chemicals being transported through that route.

Sometimes, there are some major transit routes, e.g. shipping ports etc. where many different kinds of chemicals are stored. For people staying in such areas, its impossible to know about all the chemicals that would be transiting through that area. In such situations, the people should learn about the 4-colour hazard classification. Most vessels and vehicles carry the hazard classification in the form of a placard displayed. However, the trick is in being able to identify the nature of the material, based on the displayed placard.

There are many kinds of classification used across the world. It is most essential that you should be familiar with the classification system mandated by law in your local area. If the material is being transported through your area, it would have to comply with the local laws. Hence, the transporting vehicle/vessel should be maintaining the placard/notification as per the laws applicable there.

If you are still not aware of what kind of chemical is involved, it is best to stay away. Some general rules of thumb include:

  1. If it’s a gaseous substance, stay upwind. The gaseous element wont reach you
  2. If it’s a liquid substance, stay upslope. The liquid element wont reach you
  3. If its some kind of explosive, a good “rule of thumb” would be:
    Stretch your active hand (“right” for most people) in front of you. Fold the palm into a fist, but, put your thumb up. Bring this thumb in the line between your eye (one eye closed, the thumb is in the line with the other eye) and the incident. If the thumb can cover the incident fully, you are most probably at a safe distance from the hazard. Please remember that this is a general rule of thumb. There might be some specifically vigorous events (say: nuclear reactions etc.) – where this rule wont work – in the sense that a false sense of security might be created.