Hazmat Incidents

Large scale hazardous materials incidents are fairly common, not from terrorist attacks, but from transportation accidents. Our roads and railroads are covered with tanks and containers full of hazardous chemicals. There is a gas station just around the corner and huge trucks full of gasoline come to refill their underground tanks all the time. There is no reason to be afraid of these chemicals, but you should know what to do if a hazmat incident happens near you.

Every incident is different because there are so many chemicals with so many different properties. Listen to the radio for announcements from local emergency management officials. If you are near a train derailment or a wreck on the highway that involves hazardous materials, try to stay away from it. Never go see a fire or a wreck, you may become a victim. If you are on the highway, donít rubberneck. Follow police instructions to detour around the wreck. Never take a shortcut that might bring you closer to the danger.

stay upstream,
uphill and upwind

If you are outside, try to get inside a safe building. If there is no shelter available, try to get at least a half mile from the hazmat site, 8 to 10 city blocks. If you are in a car, roll up the windows and close the vents.† Put the system on re-circulate †and then turn off the heater or air conditioner. Get to a safe building or out of the danger area if you can. Even if you are in a vehicle, stay away from anything that may be hazardous. Do not touch or drive through spilled liquids, mists, dusts, smoke or solid chemicals. In general, you want to stay upstream, uphill and upwind.

Do not try to rescue anyone. If they are contaminated with a dangerous chemical, you are not going to be able to do anything for them and you will become contaminated yourself. Leave rescue to the experts. For the same reasons, if you have children at school, leave them there. The school will be a top priority if there is danger and you are more likely to put your children at risk than to help them.

If an evacuation is called, leave immediately and follow the specific evacuation routes given. Evacuation routes are planned to keep people out of areas that may become contaminated. If officials know what the chemicals are, they will call an evacuation for the smallest radius around the site that is safe. If they are not certain what chemicals are involved, or there is serious danger of explosion, the usual procedure is to call an evacuation for a radius of 2 mile. If the danger is from fumes or smoke, people need to avoid being downwind of the site. If it is a liquid or a heavy gas, it may be flowing downhill, along stream or river beds, or along roadways. Listen and follow evacuation instructions carefully.

Sheltering In Place

If it is not safe to evacuate or if the situation is uncertain, you may be asked to shelter in place. We have heard a lot about this as a response to terrorism. If you live close to rail lines, major highways or chemical plants, you want to know how to shelter in place for hazmat incidents.

When ordered to shelter in place, turn off the air-conditioning and heating system and start sealing up the house. Close and lock all exterior doors and windows. Locking them pulls them tighter so they are better sealed. Close all interior doors as well. Shut all vents and dampers including the fireplace. Seal under doors by placing damp towels or blankets along the crack at the bottom.

Pick a room in the interior of the house as your shelter. If possible, use a bedroom with an attached bathroom and very few windows. If possible, seal these windows with plastic sheeting and duct tape. Otherwise, place damp towels on the window sills. You want your shelter to have ten square feet of floor space for each person. This provides sufficient air for about five hours before the carbon dioxide begins to build up. Officials are unlikely to recommend sheltering in place for more than three hours. The effectiveness of the shelter decreases rapidly because air seeps in from outside. Take your radio and listen for instructions. If you are asked to evacuate, do so.

Once the danger has passed, ventilate the house by opening windows and doors to clear out anything that may have gotten in. Then close up and turn back on the heating or air-conditioning.


If you have been contaminated with a hazardous substance, you need careful decontamination for two reasons. First, you want to prevent the substance on your body from being absorbed or spread. Second, you want to keep from contaminating other people. In a significant hazmat incident, emergency personnel will set up a decontamination system. Follow their instructions carefully. Do not go into a hospital or shelter until you are decontaminated. You may harm others or contaminate the building so much that it cannot be used.

Basic decontamination consists of brushing off loose chemicals and then carefully taking off your clothes. When you are contaminated with a dangerous chemical, it is no time for modesty. Take off all your clothes. Peel from the top down to keep things away from your face. Try to avoid touching contaminated areas of clothing and do not pull things off over your head. Cut or tear shirts that donít button. If you must pull a shirt over your head, close your eyes and mouth and hold your breath. If you are helping others remove clothing, protect your hands and face as well as theirs. After you have stripped, wipe down with a clean cloth. Put contaminated clothing and cleaning cloths in a plastic bag. Seal the bag, and place it in another bag. Seal the second bag and set it aside.

Take everything off your body, including all jewelry, watches, glasses, etc. You canít get all the chemicals off your body if you leave your wedding ring, watch and earrings on. Put jewelry, wallets, purses, watches, and anything else that you may want to keep, in a bag, bucket or other container to deal with later. If it is possible to decontaminate these articles, this can be done when people are safe.

Wash your hands and then remove contact lenses. If your eyes are burning or your vision is blurred, rinse your eyes with plain water. Hold your eyes open and keep a gentle stream of water flowing across them. If you wear glasses, wash them thoroughly with soap and water before putting them back on.

Wash your entire body with large amounts of water. After this first thorough rinsing, use soap and water to wash carefully. Shampoo your hair. When you are decontaminated, dress in clothes that have not come in contact with the chemicals. The best thing is clean clothes that have been stored in a drawer.