Information for the Public
- What is a chemical emergency?
- Where do hazardous chemicals come from?
- Protecting yourself
- How to know if you need to evacuate
- What to do
- How you can get more information about evacuation
- How you can get more information about chemical emergencies
- See also: Information for the Public about Terrorism
What is a chemical emergency?
A chemical emergency occurs when a hazardous chemical has been released and the release has the potential for harming people's health. Chemical releases can be unintentional, as in the case of an industrial accident, or intentional, as in the case of a terrorist attack.
Where do hazardous chemicals come from?
Hazardous chemicals have many sources. Many are used in industry (for example, chlorine, ammonia, and benzene). Others are found in nature (for example, poisonous plants). Some could be made from everyday items such as household cleaners. These types of hazardous chemicals also could be obtained and used to harm people, or they could be accidentally released. Some hazardous chemicals have been developed by military organizations for use in warfare. Examples are nerve agents such as sarin and VX, mustards such as sulfur mustards and nitrogen mustards, and choking agents such as phosgene. It might be possible for terrorists to get these chemical warfare agents and use them to harm people.
You could protect yourself during a chemical emergency, even if you didn't know yet what chemical had been released. For general information on protecting yourself, read more about evacuation (HHS/CDC), sheltering in place (HHS/CDC), and personal cleaning and disposal of contaminated clothing (HHS/CDC).
How to know if you need to evacuate
You will hear from the local police, emergency coordinators, or government on the radio and/or television emergency broadcast system if you need to evacuate.
If there is a "code red" or "severe" terror alert, you should pay attention to radio and/or television broadcasts so you will know right away if an evacuation order is made for your area.
Every emergency is different and during any emergency people may have to evacuate or to shelter in place (HHS/CDC) depending on where they live.
What to do
Remain calm. Act quickly and follow the instructions of local emergency coordinators, such as law enforcement personnel, fire departments, or local elected leaders. Every situation can be different, so local coordinators could give you special instructions to follow for a particular situation.
Local emergency coordinators may direct people to evacuate homes or offices and go to an emergency shelter. If so, emergency coordinators will tell you how to get to the shelter. If you have children in school, they may be sheltered at the school. You should not try to get to the school if the children are being sheltered there. Transporting them from the school will put them, and you, at increased risk.
The emergency shelter will have most supplies that people need. The emergency coordinators will tell you which supplies to bring with you, but you may also want to prepare a portable supply kit. Be sure to bring any medications you are taking.
If you have time, call a friend or relative in another state to tell them where you are going and that you are safe. Local telephone lines may be jammed in an emergency, so you should plan ahead to have an out-of-state contact with whom to leave messages. If you do not have private transportation, make plans in advance of an emergency to identify people who can give you a ride.
Evacuating and sheltering in this way should keep you safer than if you stayed at home or at your workplace. You will most likely not be in the shelter for more than a few hours. Emergency coordinators will let you know when it is safe to leave the shelter and anything you may need to do to make sure it is safe to re-enter your home.
- Common Misconceptions about Disasters (PDF - 900 KB) (HHS/CDC/ATSDR)
How you can get more information about evacuation
You can contact one of the following:
- State and local health departments
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- Public Response Hotline (CDC)
How you can get more information about chemical emergencies
For more information about chemical emergencies, you can visit the following websites:
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
- National Center for Environmental Health (NCEH)
- Chemicals: Health Studies Program Activities
- Chemical Weapons Elimination
- Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program
- National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals
- National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)
- Chemical Databases
- International Chemical Safety Cards (ICSCs)
- NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards
- Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR)
- Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
- National Library of Medicine (NLM)
- Regional Poison Control Center (1-800-222-1222)
- Health Resources and Services Administration (HHS/HRSA)
- Emergency Preparedness and Response (HHS/CDC)
- Toxicology Profiles for Chemical Agents (HHS/CDC)
- O'Leary M. (2004) The First 72 Hours: A Community Approach to Disaster Preparedness. Lincoln (Nebraska), iUniverse Press. Available online for a fee.
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