Haz-mat Survival Tips: Suspicious Containers

Beyond the Rule of Thumb
Survival Tip 25

By Steven De Lisi

On a Saturday afternoon, your fire department receives a call regarding a small container with an unknown substance, discovered by a citizen while cleaning out the attic of a deceased relative. The caller states that the container is a clear glass jar with a metal screw top, with perhaps 16-ounce capacity, and is about ¾ full. The liquid has an amber color. He also states that the container is labeled with what appears to be some sort of chemical name, but the name was written by hand and the label is worn and difficult to read. The citizen has not yet moved the container and he wants to know what he should do with it.

The dispatcher immediately contacts the on-call fire investigator, who decides to respond to the scene to provide assistance to the citizen. On arrival, one thought should prevail regarding this incident--Don't touch the container!

With that thought in mind, the investigator should begin by questioning the citizen regarding his discovery of the container. This discussion should take place away from the attic and should begin by determining if the citizen has touched the container. If so, he should encourage the citizen to thoroughly wash his hands, and determine if there are any obvious signs or symptoms of negative health effects, such as skin irritation or headache.

During questioning, the investigator should ask if the relative was known to have used chemicals, either in work or as a hobby, or was known to have stored other chemicals in a similar manner. The many uses of chemicals by homeowners often include painting, cleaning, and pest control. The latter is always a cause for concern. An additional use of chemicals in the home can sometimes include the manufacturing of homemade fireworks. Furthermore, novice chemists have been known to store their chemicals in a makeshift laboratory, and in this situation, the containers used may be inappropriate for the materials and the labels could be incorrect.

During questioning, the investigator should also ask if there was any detectable odor in the vicinity of the container as well as the condition of the container (e.g., were crystals observed near the rim? Was the metal lid bulging?). The appearance of crystals or a bulging of the container could indicate the presence of an unstable substance and represent an immediate threat! Remember too that storing chemicals in an attic space can create unstable situations because of the high heat and humidity often present in this environment.

If the discussion fails to yield any conclusive information regarding the container's origin or the presence of an immediate threat, the container should be investigated next. However, instead of the investigator approaching the container wearing just his work uniform, any effort to determine the character of the site should be conducted by those wearing full personal protective equipment (PPE). Because there should be no attempt to move or otherwise touch the container, firefighter protective clothing with SCBA should be adequate in most situations. Of course, this will require the assistance of additional personnel.

The primary focus of this phase of the investigation is to confirm the findings of the earlier discussion with the citizen and obtain a second opinion as to whether the container poses an immediate threat based on the items mentioned earlier. Another focus should be locating any other containers of concern that the citizen may have overlooked. Firefighters should also attempt to conduct air monitoring, using at the very least a combustible gas indicator and, if available, a photo ionization detector (PID).

If the investigation determines that the container does not appear to present an immediate threat, removal and disposal of the container is the next order of business. If the container has likely been in place for many years, there is usually no need to rush at this point. However, remember that the fire department still does not know what the material is. It could be harmless or it could be a potent pesticide, and if the fire department leaves the scene and leaves disposal up to the citizen, the material will likely go down the drain. This may not be the most desirable means of disposal.

Remember too that movement of the container could also present problems. This is especially troublesome when dealing with plastic containers, because the plastic may have degraded over time, may crack when moved, thereby allowing the liquid to leak.

Although a harmless material in an intact container can easily be disposed of as household waste, the potential for this container to represent a worst-case scenario still exists, especially because of the labeling of the container with what appears to be a chemical name. Therefore, firefighters may decide to contact a chemist for assistance, who may be a hazardous materials team member, a local college professor or teacher, or perhaps a local chemical company employee. Provide this person with details of the situation, including the name of the chemical that appears on the label and the material's appearance. This individual may be able to confirm that the name and appearance match, and if so, the hazards it likely presents. Although this will not confirm the material's identity, it may provide some direction for proper disposal.

The chemist may suggest that a hazardous material team take a sample of the material for analysis. Many communities have access to local or state government laboratories; if is believed that the situation does not present an immediate threat, then waiting a few days for the lab results should not be a problem. Although the lab results may not positively identify the material, lab personnel will likely be able to determine the presence of various characteristics, such as toxicity or flammability, which will then determine the best means for disposal.

If the material proves to be hazardous, then a local cleanup contractor will be needed to remove the container. Remember that some contractors specialize in small container disposal; their cost is likely to be less than that of a major cleanup company. However, rather than wait for lab results to determine if the material can be disposed of as household waste, the citizen may hire a cleanup contractor himself for immediate removal of the container.

Regardless of the method chosen, the fire department should discourage the citizen from disposing of the unknown material in the trash or pouring the contents into a sanitary sewer system. The citizen should be informed that disposing any hazardous substance in an unapproved manner could violate environmental regulations and subject him to various penalties. Although the expense and inconvenience of proper disposal could appear burdensome, remind the citizen that it pales in comparison to the expense and inconvenience of a visit to the local circuit court.

Discussion Points

If you had to deal with a suspicious container, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is there a local chemist that you can contact for assistance?

  • Is there a laboratory that could analyze the material? If so, how long would it take to obtain results and at what cost?

  • Are there cleanup contractors in the area that specialize in the removal of small containers?

Click here for more info on Steven De Lisi's book, Hazardous Materials Incidents: Surviving the Initial Response.

Steven M. De Lisi retired after a fire service career spanning 27 years that included serving as a regional training manager for the Virginia Department of Fire Programs (VDFP) and most recently as the deputy chief for the Virginia Air Guard Fire Rescue. De Lisi is a hazardous materials specialist; he continues to coordinate a statewide training program for the investigation of environmental crimes as an adjunct instructor for VDFP. De Lisi began his career in hazardous-materials response in 1982 as a member of the hazmat team with the Newport News (VA) Fire Department. Since then, he has also served as a hazardous materials officer for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management; in that capacity, he provided on-scene assistance to first responders involved with hazardous-materials incidents in an area that included more than 20 local jurisdictions.

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