Decontamination: Is Water King?


In 1981, I was sworn into the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) and left my career in the chemical industry behind, or so I thought. In September 1984, I became a charter member of the newly formed Hazardous Materials (HazMat) Company #1, FDNY. I was one of 40 firefighters who had a desire to be part of a new exclusive unit dedicated to hazardous materials response. Fire was no longer our main focus; response to natural, accidental, or intentional chemical releases became our primary mission.

If you had asked any of the firefighters or fire officers forming the company that day the definition of a chemical warfare agent (CWA) or what nerve gas1 was, only a handful would have been able to answer correctly. Even then, most of us would have dismissed these items as military issues, more common to World War I battlefields and the Cold War of our era than to firefighters. We will never see anything like that on our shores, or so we thought.

CWAs, along with their sub-category nerve agents, were simply not on our radar as a threat to New York City, let alone the nation. We trained and drilled on petroleum products, acid/base, and other industrial chemical releases more common to the date and time. We spent little time or resources thinking about ways to respond to and decontaminate from the exotic weapons the military favored. If we were contaminated by and exposed to a chemical release, we would use soap and water to wash and decontaminate at the scene. Even the contaminated equipment was washed down before repacking. If civilians were affected, they were also given the same option: to wash using soap and water. The contaminated water was never an issue in the early days; we held by the motto “dilution is the solution.”

During the first two weeks of Fall in 1984, HazMat Company #1 trained extensively trying to make firefighters into hazmat technicians prior to coming on line as a full-fledged hazardous materials response unit. We had chemical protective suits in three levels. We had the books to research the hazards of specific chemicals or chemical families. We trained on effective mitigation techniques for multiple scenarios. We had containment drums, chlorine kits, colorimetric tubes, and explosive gas meters—everything a state-of-the-art hazmat team would carry. But, most of all, we had absorbents to absorb and hoselines to dispense our water, the mainstays of our new profession. When in doubt, absorb it up or water it down: “Dilution is the solution.” Correct?

For two weeks, we ran through procedures and protocols. We laughed about stories related to our profession, such as the story of the old fire chief who went straight up to the open drum to smell the contents only to have his glasses become etched by the vapor of the chemical or the battalion chief who stuck his finger in the barrel and tasted the material to identify it. We mused that the wearing of a white helmet does not automatically bring wisdom; we knew better than that! We learned our lessons well. We were ready, fog nozzle in hand. There was nothing for which we could not use water. On October 4, 1984, we came on line as the premiere hazmat response unit in New York City. We didn’t know what we didn’t know, especially how to properly decontaminate ourselves. We thought that all we had to do was use water. Correct?

Those were simpler times. Firefighters from all over the city began referring to the unit as “Mop and Glow” and began special calling the unit to dump pounds of absorbent over spills. But, when the situation soured, they called HazMat Company #1 to put the “genie back in the bottle”(i.e., contain, control, and mitigate a hazmat release). The motto on our truck was, “Better living through chemistry,” and we were prepared for anything—or so we thought. We felt confident about assessing the incident. We were confident that our protective equipment would protect us. We were confident that we could confine and contain, but when it came to decon, water was all we had. The amount used would be the difference between a good decon and a better decon. We knew what we knew: Water was king. And we thought we had a good grasp of those things we did not know, the areas in which we were not prepared, but we were wrong.


The hazmat world changed at midnight on December 3, 1984, when 42 tons of the toxic chemical methyl isocyanate exposed more than 500,000 people to toxic gases in Bhopal, India. That night, 2,259 people died; another 1,578 succumbed in the following days, weeks, and months.2 That day changed our thinking about response to hazardous materials. We began thinking about cataclysmic industrial accidents that could overwhelm our resources. We began asking ourselves questions: How can we better respond and mitigate the incident? How can we better treat the victims? If we use water for decontamination, would we be making the situation better or worse? We asked the questions, but there was nothing else available, so the answer was still the same: Use water. Little thought went into decontamination of the survivors or the response personnel because water was king.

Our thought process in regard to decon was that if responder equipment was contaminated, we could dispose of it; if the victims were contaminated, we would simply wash them down and dispose of their clothing; and if the scene was contaminated, we would wash it down into the sewer or call for a cleanup company. Things were still simple! We began to question the use of only water, but water was still king.

The 1980s saw an increase in response to two new hazards in the hazmat world: polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)3 and asbestos.4 Every incident required a hazmat response and a decontamination process. PCBs were oily, so we used strong soaps to mitigate the process. Asbestos was a solid, so we instituted filtration of the “gray water” effluent to protect the environment and control the spread of contamination. We began to devise tractor trailer-sized shower units to protect privacy. The bigger the unit, the larger the bragging rights. We could control the temperature and amount of water used. We could soap off nonwater soluble chemicals and contain them for disposal—sometimes. Innovations became available. New equipment was used to complement water. But, water was still king.

The late ’80s and early ’90s brought a rising trend of state-sponsored terrorism and the use of CWAs against populations. There were claims that Saddam Hussein of Iraq used CWAs against Iran during its decade-long war in the ’80s; he continued to use them against his own people, the Kurds, in northern Iraq. This was happening at the very time countries in the civilized world were beginning to disarm themselves of their chemical stockpiles. With these new developments, the hazmat community began to research CWAs and nerve agents. Protocols were developed on how to respond and recover (1987 was the first time I actually picked up a book on CWAs, a trend that continues for me today as an adjunct professor at the Homeland Security Management Institute at Long Island University). Water was still king and the prominent decontamination solution, and dilution was still the solution.


The first item that received our attention was our ability to respond and mitigate the incident. Our research led us to trust in our personal protective equipment and our hazmat mitigation skills learned over the past two decades, and we came to the conclusion that CWAs were just another “hazmat with an attitude.” This did not hold true for our decontamination ability. The more we researched CWAs, the more we became uneasy with our decontamination protocols. All we had were water and soap. We were not neutralizing the chemical. We were not using any chemical reactions to render it safe. All we could do was wash it off. All that water did was transfer the problem. We asked the questions, but the solutions remained the same. Water was king.

The events of the 1990s revolutionized the way the hazmat community operated. A suite of training programs became available from the Department of Justice specifically for emergency responders to terrorism events. Funding through the Nunn-Luger-Domenici Domestic Preparedness Program5 created instructional training programs. Technology was transferred from the military in the form of equipment and identification methodologies to first responders. This technology gave the response community new tools that increased its response capability. The availability of the military M291 kit, a personnel-activated charcoal decontamination kit, gave it, for the first time, something to use other than water for decontamination. This was a giant leap forward, but few agencies embraced the methodology. Water was still the king.

In the late 1990s, the military was looking to replace the M291 kit with a Canadian product that boasted the ability to neutralize or remove known CWAs and T2 toxin6 from the skin if it was applied soon after contamination and exposure. FDNY received its first experience with Reactive Skin Decontamination Lotion (RSDL®)7 through the U.S. Marines Chemical Biological Incident Response Force (CBIRF). FDNY developed a training relationship with CBIRF in the late 1990s, and CBIRF invited two members from FDNY Hazmat to accompany them on a trip to Canada for CWA training. Here the members used RSDL, along with other procedures, to decontaminate and save the lives of exposed pigs. The RSDL lotion was easy to use and effective. The results were so promising that on its return, FDNY Hazmat Operations immediately investigated the possibility of adding the technology to its arsenal of equipment. Water was not being replaced; it was just going to be augmented.

By early 2001, RSDL was fielded by the U.S. military, foreign militaries, and a number of foreign response agencies. The U.S. emergency response community was frustrated in its efforts to add RSDL to its equipment caches because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had not approved the reactive skin decontamination lotion for human use. It took a catastrophe like 9/11 for America to realize and come to terms with the fact that the oceans no longer protected it from terrorists. Terrorists had struck the nerve center of our financial sector and the hallmark of military power. The United States was vulnerable. If terrorists were able to appropriate or create chemical agents, could an event using CWAs be a possibility? Could we recover from such an ordeal? Water was still king, but other solutions were in the making in the minds of the hazmat community.

After 9/11, RSDL soon became available through the military to specific response organizations. Today, it is available nationwide and is the standard for the U.S. military. But are we as a community ready to use it? Will we ever get away from just water as the solution to decontamination?

The question is not whether we as a response community are ready to use an alternative to water. The question is, Can we ethically not use it? We, as a community, have not fully embraced RSDL or other decontamination solutions; however, we should not be focused on the issue of displacing water. What we should be doing is integrating RSDL and other decontamination solutions into our protocols and procedures of decontamination options. We should have all these solutions readily available or know where to access them in an emergency. Water will be the solution for a long time to come, but through technology, new solutions will be developed that will protect our responders and the victims. They will be equally effective on toxic industrial chemicals and toxic industrial materials as well as CWAs. RSDL is one possibility available now. It can neutralize or remove chemical agents, not just transfer the problem. Water is still the king, but water may need to share a small part of the throne.

If the unspeakable occurs and this nation falls victim to a chemical attack or an accidental or intentional release, emergency responders will be there with their hoselines. They will shower the victims down and do the best they can with the resources available. We need to give responders the tools that will help them fulfill their mission: protect the lives and property of the citizens they serve. To do anything less is ethically challenging. But, if we consciously know that more effective technology and products are available and we do not actively pursue their acquisition, can we truly say that we have done all that we can with a clear conscience?

I leave you with this final quote to contemplate from a friend and mentor of mine, Chief John Eversole, special operations chief, Chicago (IL) Fire Department: “Our department takes 1,120 calls every day. Do you know how many of the calls the public expects perfection on? 1,120.”


1. “Chemical warfare agents” refers to a large group of toxic chemicals used by militaries around the world. Nerve gas is a misnomer. Chemical gases, like chlorine and phosgene among many more, were used by both sides during World War I to incapacitate the opponent’s troops. Nerve agents, a group of chemicals related to organophosphate pesticides, contain both oily liquids with a high-vapor pressure (persistent) and liquids with a low-vapor pressure (no persistent) developed during and after World War II. These chemicals acted against the nervous system to incapacitate and kill the exposed victims. The term “nerve gas” was used to describe the group of chemicals used by the military as warfare agents before the term “chemical warfare agents” was coined. Nerve agents are not gases. Croddy, Eric. Chemical and Biological Warfare: A Comprehensive Survey for the Concerned Citizen. 2002. New York, N.Y.: Springer-Verlag; chapter 1, page 6.

2. These numbers are the official numbers by the government of Madhya Pradesh, India. A more generally accepted figure is that 8,000 to 10,000 died within 72 hours, and it is estimated that 25,000 have since died from gas-related diseases. Eckerman, Ingrid (2005). “The Bhopal gas leak: Analyses of causes and consequences by three different models,” Journal of Loss Prevention in the process industry,(18:213–217); doi:10.1016/j.jlp.2005.07.007, and Eckerman, Ingrid (2006). “The Bhopal Disaster 1984 – working conditions and the role of the trade unions,” (PDF). Asian Pacific Newsletter on occupational health and safety (13(2):48-49).

3. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are mixtures of up to 209 individual chlorinated compounds (known as congeners). PCBs have been used as coolants and lubricants in transformers, capacitors, and other electrical equipment because they don’t burn easily and are good insulators. The manufacture of PCBs was stopped in the United States in 1977 because of evidence that they build up in the environment and can cause harmful health effects. Products made before 1977 that may contain PCBs include old fluorescent lighting fixtures, electrical devices containing PCB capacitors, and old microscope and hydraulic oils. Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (ATSDR) Web site.

4. Asbestos is a mineral fiber that has been used commonly in a variety of building construction materials for insulation and as a fire retardant. Because of its fiber strength and heat-resistant properties, asbestos has been used for a wide range of manufactured goods, mostly in building materials (roofing shingles, ceiling and floor tiles; paper products and asbestos cement products); friction products (automobile clutch, brake, and transmission parts); heat-resistant fabrics; packaging; gaskets; and coatings. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Web site.

5. The Nunn-Lugar-Domenici Domestic Preparedness Program, led by the Defense Department (DOD), provides training and equipment to help U.S. cities respond to possible terrorist attacks that involve weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The Army’s Chemical and Biological Defense Command designated a “train-the-trainer” program to build on the existing knowledge and capabilities of local first responders who would deal with a WMD incident during the first hours. The legislation also designated funds for the Public Health Service to establish Metropolitan Medical Strike Teams to help improve cities’ medical response to a WMD incident. U.S. General Accounting Office, “Combating Terrorism: Observations on the Nunn-Lugar-Domenici Domestic Preparedness Program,” Oct. 1998.

6.Trichothecene mycotoxin is a naturally occurring poison produced by fungi. Illinois Dept. of Public Health;

7. RSDL is a copyrighted product of Bracco Diagnostics, Inc.

VINCENT J. DOHERTY is the director for program outreach for the Center for Homeland Defense and Security at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. He is also an adjunct professor for the Homeland Security Management Institute at Long Island University and consults on numerous programs for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). He is a 25-year, highly decorated veteran of the Fire Department of New York, where he served as the company commander of Hazardous Materials Company 1, the executive officer of hazmat operations, and an acting battalion chief of the hazmat battalion in the Special Operations Command. Prior to his retirement in 2006, he served as a senior fellow/practitioner to the Preparedness Directorate, DHS. Doherty is a prominent speaker/lecturer and has a B.S. degree from St. John’s and a master of arts degree in security studies: homeland security and defense from the Naval Postgraduate School.

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