Chemical Emergency Preparedness

About Chemical Emergencies

People in chemical protective gear responding to chemical emergencyChemicals are a natural and important part of our environment. Even though we often don’t think about it, we use chemicals every day. Chemicals help keep our food fresh and our bodies clean. They help our plants grow and fuel our cars. And chemicals make it possible for us to live longer, healthier lives. Under certain conditions, chemicals can also be poisonous or have a harmful effect on your health. Some chemicals that are safe, and even helpful in small amounts, can be harmful in larger quantities or under certain conditions.

Chemical accidents do happen, at home and in the community. The American Red Cross wants you to be prepared by following our chemical emergency preparedness recommendations.

How You May Be Exposed to a Chemical

You may be exposed to a chemical in three ways:
  • Breathing the chemical
  • Swallowing contaminated food, water, or medication
  • Touching the chemical, or coming into contact with clothing or things that have touched the chemical
Remember, you may be exposed to chemicals even though you may not be able to see or smell anything unusual.

Chemical Accidents Can Be Prevented

Chemicals are found everywhere – in our kitchens, medicine cabinets, basements, and garages. In fact, most chemical accidents occur in our own homes. And they can be prevented.

Prepare for a Chemical Emergency

American Red CrossHome chemical accidents can result from trying to improve the way a product works by adding one substance to another, not following directions for use of a product, or by improper storage or disposal of a chemical. Fortunately, a few simple precautions can help you avoid many chemical emergencies.
    • Avoid mixing chemicals, even common household products. Some combinations, such as ammonia and bleach, can create toxic gases.
    • Always read and follow the directions when using a new product. Some products should not be used in small, confined spaces to avoid inhaling dangerous vapors. Other products should not be used without gloves and eye protection to help prevent the chemical from touching your body.
    • Store chemical products properly. Non-food products should be stored tightly closed in their original containers so you can always identify the contents of each container and how to properly use the product. Better yet – don’t store chemicals at home. Buy only as much of a chemical as you think you will use. If you have product left over, try to give it to someone who will use it. Or see below for tips on proper disposal.
    • Beware of fire. Never smoke while using household chemicals. Don’t use hair spray, cleaning solutions, paint products, or pesticides near the open flame of an appliance, pilot light, lighted candle, fireplace, wood burning stove, etc. Although you may not be able to see or smell them, vapor particles in the air could catch fire or explode.
    • Clean up any spills immediately with some rags, being careful to protect your eyes and skin. Allow the fumes in the rags to evaporate outdoors in a safe place, then wrap them in a newspaper and place the bundle in a sealed plastic bag. Dispose of these materials with your trash. If you don’t already have one, buy a fire extinguisher that is labeled for A, B, and C class fires and keep it handy.
    • Dispose of unused chemicals properly. Improper disposal can result in harm to yourself or members of your family, accidentally contaminate our local water supply, or harm other people or wildlife.

Many household chemicals can be taken to your local household hazardous waste collection facility. Many facilities accept pesticides, fertilizers, household cleaners, oil-based paints, drain and pool cleaners, antifreeze, and brake fluid. Some products can be recycled, which is better for our environment. If you have questions about how to dispose of a chemical, call the facility or the environmental or recycling agency to learn the proper method of disposal.

Respond During a Chemical Emergency

There are many organizations that help the community in an emergency, such as police, fire, and sheriff departments, the American Red Cross, and government agencies. All of these groups coordinate their activities through the local office of emergency management. In many areas there are local Hazardous Materials (Haz-Mat) Teams, who are trained to respond to chemical accidents.

If an accident involving hazardous materials occurs, you will be notified by the authorities as to what steps to take. You may hear a siren, be called by telephone, or emergency personnel may drive by and give instructions over a loudspeaker. Officials could even come to your door. If you hear a warning signal, you should go indoors and listen to a local Emergency Alert System (EAS) station for emergency instructions from county or state officials.

Important Points to Remember

  • In the event of an emergency, follow the instructions of the authorities carefully. They know best how to protect you and your family. Listen to your emergency broadcast stations on radio and TV.
  • Use your phone only in life-threatening emergencies, and then call the Poison Control Center (1-800-222-1222), Emergency Medical Services (EMS), 9-1-1, or the operator immediately.
  • If you are told to “shelter in place”, go inside, close all windows and vents and turn off all fans, heating or cooling systems. Take family members and pets to a safe room, seal windows and doors, and listen to emergency broadcast stations for instructions.
  • If you are told to evacuate immediately, follow your Family Disaster Plan. Take your Family Disaster Supplies Kit. Pack only the bare essentials, such as medications, and leave your home quickly. Follow the traffic route authorities recommend. Don’t take short cuts on the way to the shelter.
  • If you find someone who appears to have been injured from chemical exposure, make sure you are not in danger before administering First Aid.
  • And lastly, remember, the best way to protect yourself and your family is to be prepared.

In Case of Poisoning

The most common home chemical emergencies involve small children eating medicines. Keep all medicines, cosmetics, cleaning products, and other household chemicals out of sight and out of reach of children. Experts in the field of chemical manufacturing suggest that doing so could eliminate up to 75 percent of all poisoning of small children.

If someone in your home does eat or drink a non-food substance, find the container it came out of immediately and take it with you to the phone. Call the Poison Control Center(1-800-222-1222), or Emergency Medical Services (EMS), or 9-1-1, or call the operator and tell them exactly what your child ingested.

Follow their instructions carefully. Please be aware that the First Aid advice found on the container may not be appropriate. So, do not give anything by mouth until you have been advised by medical professionals.

Disaster Preparedness and Response

Always call 911 if you are in immediate danger and need emergency help.

debris-disaster

This page lists general information for homeowners, communities, schools, and facilities, that can apply to many different disaster situations. Much of this information is repeated on pages about specific types of natural events or disasters. More about how EPA responds to natural disasters.

On this page:

General:

Individuals, Homeowners:

Communities, Schools, Facilities:


General:

What You Can Do

Planning – Preparing for natural disasters can greatly reduce the risks to health and the environment. Hurricanes or floods can contaminate drinking water sources. Forest fires or volcanoes harm air quality. Tornadoes or earthquakes, by damaging factories or storage facilities, can release contaminants where people live or into the environment.

  • Individuals and homeowners can plan ahead to protect health for themselves and family members.
  • Communities, schools, and businesses can plan ahead to reduce risks and possible costs of storm-related spills or cleanup.
  • Learn about making an emergency plan, from Ready.gov

Recovery – Understanding risks will help speed recovery efforts and help keep problems from becoming worse. Improper use of portable generators or heating devices can release deadly carbon monoxide to indoor air. Ice-melting agents used improperly can pollute waterways. Large amounts of debris can present serious disposal problems for state and local communities. Owners or operators of damaged facilities may be responsible for reporting spills.

  • Individuals and homeowners can learn more about what, and what not, to do to protect health of themselves and family.
  • Communities, schools, and businesses can learn more about address large-scale risks and be aware of any legal requirements they may have under applicable regulations.

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Report suspected spills, contamination, or possible violations.

  • To report oil, chemical, or hazardous substance spills, call the National Response Center 800-424-8802.
  • Report a suspected environmental violation online. When you don’t have Internet access, call the US EPA office for your state.
  • For pesticide poisoning, call 911 if the person is unconscious, has trouble breathing, or has convulsions. Otherwise, call Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222.

Generator Safety

People get sick or die each year from carbon monoxide or “CO” poisoning due to unsafe use of generators.

Learn about government emergency messages before you need them:

  • FEMA Wireless Emergency Alerts – FEMA works with US cell phone carriers to send free emergency texts to cell phones (that can get text messages) within range. You don’t have to sign up to receive the messages.
  • Emergency Alert System – is a public warning system that uses existing TV, radio, cable, and other systems to send critical messages to the general public. Messages are local or national, depending on the situation.
  • NOAA Weather Radio – is a nationwide network of radio stations broadcasting continuous weather information directly from the nearest National Weather Service office. NWR broadcasts official Weather Service warnings, watches, forecasts and other hazard information 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

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Individuals, Homeowners:

Returning home: Dealing with Debris and Damaged Buildings

Drinking water recovery

Home wastewater

  • What do I do with my home septic system after a flood? Do not drink your well wateruntil it is tested and safe. Do not use (flush) the sewage system until water in the soil absorption field is lower than the water level around the house. If you have a small business and your septic system has received chemicals, take extra precautions to prevent contact with water or inhaling fumes. Proper clean-up depends on the kinds of chemicals in the wastewater.

Limit contact with flood water

Flood water may have high levels of raw sewage or other hazardous substances. Early symptoms from exposure to contaminated flood water may include upset stomach, intestinal problems, headache and other flu-like discomfort. Anyone experiencing these and any other problems should immediately seek medical attention.

Mold

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Communities, Schools, Facilities:

Facility wastewater – Communities or facilities

Disaster debris

Communities should plan ahead to handle exceptionally large amounts of disaster debris from damaged or destroyed buildings, supplies, trees or other green waste, carcasses, or other materials. Disposal problems can result from large amounts of debris but also from hazardous or toxic substances in the debris that can contaminate air, water, land, and food if not handled properly. Burning large amounts of debris to reduce volume may not be an option. More information on disaster debris.

Hazardous waste and homeland security

Pesticides, chemical and oil spills, hazardous waste

  • Call the National Response Center 800-424-8802 (24 hours a day every day). For those without 800 access, please call 202-267-2675.
  • Industries and businesses that encounter spills or discharges in the aftermath should contact the National Response Center immediately. You or your organization may have legal requirements for reporting or for taking other actions, depending on the spill.
  • National Pesticide Information Center: 1-800-858-7378. Pesticide contacts
  • Report spills or environmental violations

Renovation and rebuilding

Lead-safe work: By law, contractors need to use lead-safe work practices on emergency renovations on homes or buildings built before 1978. Activities such as sanding, cutting, and demolition can create lead-based paint hazards. Lead-contaminated dust is harmful to adults, particularly pregnant women, and children.

Asbestos: Anyone working on demolition, removal, and cleanup of building debris needs be aware of any asbestos and to handle asbestos materials properly. People exposed to asbestos dust can develop serious lung health problems including asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma. Although the use of asbestos has dramatically decreased in recent years, it is still found in many residential and commercial buildings and can pose a serious health risk.

Underground Storage Tanks

During a flood, underground storage tank (UST) systems may become displaced or damaged and release their
contents into the environment, causing soil, surface water, and groundwater contamination.

Fuel Waivers

EPA works with the Department of Energy to address fuel supply disruptions caused by disasters or emergencies, by issuing fuel waivers for certain fuel standards, in affected areas.