Chemical manufacturers’ safety department files are full of horror stories: accidents that caused serious injury or permanent damage to human life—accidents that could have been avoided had emergency responders on the scene not relied solely on experience, field references, or local advice to mitigate the incident. If responders keep in mind that help is just a phone call away—a phone call to Chemtrec or the manufacturer of the chemical involved— they will be better equipped to deal with the situation.

The following are true stories. If the responders had taken the time to make a phone call or two at the onset of the incident, they could have changed the outcomes.

Scenario #1: a large, mid-Atlantic city. The haz-mat team responds to a highway spill of a caustic (a 50 percent water solution of sodium hydroxide) from plastic drums. The team does not call Chemtrec or the manufacturer but relies on previous procedures to “neutralize” the spill with soda ash (sodium carbonate). The material is then placed in disposal drums and considered nonhazardous.

Analysis: Both sodium hydroxide and sodium carbonate are bases (also sometimes referred to as alkalis or caustics). The result of the above “neutralization” is still a very strong corrosive in the form of a slippery paste. The paste will stick to skin and must be scraped off before flushing the skin with water. Accidental exposure is very possible because the contents of the cleanup drums are thought to be harmless. In fact, the opposite is true. When such a strong base contacts eye tissue, it frequently causes partial or complete blindness—the eye actually dissolves.

Scenario #2; a Midwestern rural community. A glass carboy of fuming acid is dropped in an industrial plant, and several employees are exposed to fumes and liquid. One worker sustains serious leg bums as a result of direct contact. Responders use available hazmat reference manuals but do not call Chemtrec and the acid’s manufacturer until two hours later. In the interim, they apply large quantities of sodium carbonate at the entrance to the spill room, forming a slippery area behind which the remaining acid continues to fume. The burned employee is treated at a hospital and released; the hospital does not follow established medical procedures set by the manufacturer’s physician for exposure victims.

Analysis: Excess neutralization with sodium carbonate causes a high pH, which is just as serious an environmental concern as the low pH of the acid. Also, it is a slipping hazard and may clog drains when wet. A more practical approach is to use limestone chips from the parking lot or a lawn and garden center.

The hospital staff underestimated the seriousness of the victim’s slowhealing acid burns. The victim later had to return to the hospital so it could confirm the adequacy of treatment.

Scenario #3: a New England city. An employee of a medical lab is splashed with a glass cleaner containing dilute sulfuric and phosphoric acids. Although the technician is wearing glasses, her failure to wear goggles exposes her eyes to the corrosive liquid, I.ab personnel wipe her face with a damp cloth. The ambulance team uses 50 to 75 ml of normal saline to irrigate her eyes before taking her on the 25-minute trip to a trauma center. Lab personnel think the brief treatment is adequate. As the ambulance leaves the plant, personnel place a call to the supplier’s safety department at the telephone number listed on the label of the bottle.

Analysis: Corrosives usually “love” water and move toward the cleanest water, thus traveling deeper into the skin. Simply splashing, wiping, or running a brief spray over an exposed area does not draw out the corrosive material already absorbed. You must flush the area for 15 minutes to ensure adequate decontamination. Use showers or eye washes if available.

The treatment for hydrofluoric acid (HE) exposures differs from that for other corrosives. If Calcium Gluconate ointment is available, flush the exposed area for five minutes and then apply the ointment per established treatment protocols. Otherwise continue with irrigation for the full 15 minutes.


Incident of September 1989

Sept. 4th 5:20 p.m.

An artist in Chico, California calls the St. Louis plant of the Mallinckrodt Specialty Chemicals Company to request information on styrene monomer. She tells the security officer on duty that she is concerned about the effects of inhalation and asks for a return call “tomorrow.”

The security officer follows procedure and pages the safety specialist on call to advise him of the inquiry.

5:27 p.m.

The Mallinckrodt safety specialist telephones the artist, who states that she uses styrene monomer in artwork. She has been using the material in her kitchen for three hours this time, with several fans on in the room and several small windows open. She has been wearing a respirator on advice of the supplier but could not identify the type and does not think she has an MSDS.

Two children are home and they are outside now. Also, she passed out once before while using the styrene monomer; her husband came home and found her on the floor of the room in which the chemical was used. She has asked several people about her symptoms, including her doctor, who according to her attributed the condition to high blood pressure.

When asked about her current condition, the artist states that she is disoriented, has a sore throat and thick tongue, and is dizzy and having waves of nausea.

The safety specialist immediately instructs her to leave the house and go to the front porch. He says that he is calling the local fire department and emergency medical services.

5:42 p.m.

Contact is established with the Chico fire and police dispatcher, who says that the artist’s residence is in the county.

5:46 p.m. 5:48 p.m.

The Mallinckrodt specialist is transferred to the sheriffs office, who transfers the call to the Butte County Fire Department.

The situation is explained to the Butte County fire dispatcher, and the flash point and other chemical information on styrene monomer are relayed. Butte County dispatches emergency medical and fire service equipment.

6:10 p.m.

The Mallinckrodt safety specialist calls the artist’s home and speaks to a fire department apparatus engineer, who states that the artist is being stabilized by the emergency medical team before transport to a hospital (she is disoriented, nauseated, and incoherent). She says that she has been using an organic vapor mask but could smell the monomer. The fire department has found a Mallinckrodt MSDS at the residence.

Sept. 5th 10:00 a.m

The artist calls to thank Mallinckrodt and to say that she had been released after overnight treatment. She says she’s going to use another material for her work from now on.

(On the supplier’s orders, the state police stopped the ambulance as it was leaving town. EMS personnel established irrigation using a garden hose, and the patient did not suffer permanent damage.)


The greatest problem in these situations is responders’ increased reliance on experience or field references and their failure to call (or call quickly) Chemtrec and industry product specialists. As if the lack of calls wasn’t bad enough, some responders rely solely on the Department ofTransportation’s Emergency Response Guide— but ignore a reference in the introduction that clearly states to call for help immediately.

Why can’t you rely on the MSDS or the CHRIS manual or the Railroad Manual or your haz-mat team? you might ask. Because the physical characteristics and chemical hazards listed in a book or on an MSDS must be interpreted by someone who understands the reactions and results described.

Assessment of risks must be based on such variables as type, age, and condition of containers; contamination by other chemicals; stressors such as heat, water, and impact; and the exposure to the community by terrain or proximity—coupled with your experience in handling the material in the quantity and concentrations involved. This ability only comes from someone who has a history of successful experience. People who teach, conduct experiments involving “glassware” quantities, or only read about the materials are not qualified in such deliberations.

You can reach a qualified individual by making a phone call. If there is a number on the MSDS, start there. Don’t hesitate to place a call to Chern-

tree or another industry information source you have used in the past. Bill Hand of the Houston Fire Department haz-mat team has stated on many occasions that the team’s most valuable resource is the list of industry telephone numbers of product specialists that they call for information. If you don’t have a number, call Chemtrec and request that a conference call be set up with the chemical manufacturer.

Usually a representative from the manufacturer’s safety department who has personal experience with the material will take the call. Be prepared to answer the following: Where are you calling from? (You’d be surprised how many calls come from a phone in the room where the release has occurred!) Was anyone in the area at the time of the release? (They are potentially exposed and need further evaluation.) What is the current status (location, quantity in and out of container, condition of container, stressors)? What is known about the cause

of this situation? Is there any urgency (persons trapped, weather change, etc.)? What qualifications, training, experience, and equipment do you have?

The product specialist will describe in brief terms the physical and chemical properties and hazards of the chemical. If more than one chemical is involved, the safety representative may need time to research the situation and may have to call you back. Keep the telephone line open.

The representative will tell you if you are dealing with a corrosive, a flammable, a poison, or whatever. Follow his directions explicitly. Sometimes you just don’t hit it off with the first person you speak to. Don’t be afraid to make another call to Chemtrec and ask for a “second opinion.”

OSHA 1910.120, effective as of March 6, 1990, specifically mandates that the incident commander use all available information and sources to develop the site-specific response plan. So remember, it only takes a call to comply.

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