Hazardous materials include toxic chemicals, flammable substances, radioactive materials, explosives, or poisons. An emergency incident can occur involving hazardous materials when an accident happens during the transportation of these substances by rail, over the highways, by ship, or aircraft. If you live near a major highway, railroad line, ship yard or airport, there is potential risk that you could experience a hazmat incident.
A hazmat emergency can also happen during production accidents. But chemical plants and explosives factories are not the only sources of hazardous materials. Perhaps surprisingly, gas stations, hospitals, and waste disposal sites are also potential hazmat sites. So, if you live near any of those facilities, there is risk of a hazmat episode.
What can you do to protect yourself in the event of a hazmat emergency?
- Be aware of the potential for such an emergency. Take inventory of the hazardous materials sites in your town, and their location relative to your home. Note also the direction of prevailing winds in your area and determine whether or not your home is generally downwind or upwind of these sites.
- Even if your home is upwind, and therefore safer than places downwind of potential hazmat sites, realize that the wind can change and you should still be prepared to take appropriate action if hazardous materials are accidentally released into the atmosphere.
- Prepare an emergency supplies kit that includes plastic sheeting, duct tape and scissors. In a hazmat emergency, use the sheeting and duct tape to seal windows, doors, roof vents, furnace ducts and air conditioners to prevent contaminants from entering your home.
- If you become aware of an incident, monitor local radio and TV stations for details and instructions. Do not be tempted to be a "lookee-lou" near the site of the incident — that would put you at risk of contamination and you might impede containment or rescue operations. Stay away from the area.
- If you are outdoors, use the word UP to remind you what to do — remain upstream, uphill and upwind. Move at least a half-mile from ground-zero.
- Do not step on or touch any spilled liquids or solid chemical deposits. Stay away from any airborne mist, smoke or fog.
- If you are in a vehicle, remain inside, keep the doors, windows and vents shut, and do not use the air conditioner or heater (they draw in outside air).
- If you are at home, use the plastic sheeting and duct tape to seal the doors, windows, heating ducts, air conditioner, and any other openings (cracks, etc,) that might allow outside air to penetrate.
- Continue to monitor radio and TV for instructions about when it is safe to come out, or for other decontamination information.
- If possible, consider evacuating the area. However, before deciding to evacuate, consider that the contamination might be spreading over the escape route, or that the route might be closed off by authorities to keep people out of the area and allow decontamination and rescue units in. Before leaving the relative safety of your shelter, monitor reports on radio and TV to learn if evacuation is a viable option.
- If you are away from home when the incident occurs, contact authorities to find out if it is safe to return. Do not enter the contamination area until you are told it is safe.
- When you are permitted to return home and the area is declared to be safe, open windows and doors and turn on fans to provide ventilation.
- If you become contaminated, follow instructions issued by authorities. In some cases, you might be told to take a shower, but in other cases you might be instructed to stay away from water. Not every incident is handled in the same manner, so make sure you get specific instructions before attempting to decontaminate.
- Remove exposed clothing and shoes and seal them tightly in plastic bags for later disposal, as instructed by authorities.
- Until you are sure that the situation is safe, avoid contact with other people. You could inadvertently contaminate them, or they could do the same to you.
- If you become ill, seek medical treatment as soon as possible.