State and city homeland security officials, emergency medical services (EMS) directors, and fire and police chiefs are encouraged to review their risk of, and response to, a deliberate or accidental chemical disaster. Jerome Hauer, former assistant secretary for Public Health Emergency Preparedness at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; former director of emergency management for New York City; and CEO of the consulting group, The Hauer Group, explains that the security of chemical facilities and chemicals and other hazardous materials being transported by truck, rail, and barge has been a concern since 9/11. The Department of Homeland Security finalized its chemical security regulations late last year; the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards were developed to prevent terrorists from accessing and using hazardous chemicals.
In addition, Hauer noted the following in a release issued during September, National Preparedness Month:
- The nation’s transportation system is vulnerable with respect to chemicals and other hazardous materials. Each day, millions of tons of hazardous materials are transported across more than 200,000 miles of highway, track, and inland waterways. The U.S. Department of Transportation regulates the transport of these materials.
- Modeling scenarios have predicted that a serious chemical disaster could result in hundreds to a few thousand casualties, depending on level of toxicity, length of exposure, atmospheric dispersion, and persistence. In a truck or rail accident involving a toxic chemical, the operator, emergency response teams, and the surrounding communities would be in imminent danger.
- Although there are no antidotes to treat individuals who have been poisoned by some of the most toxic chemicals, antidotes are available for first responders for organophosphorus nerve agents and pesticides commonly used in agriculture. Organophosphate pesticides like malathion and parathion could pose as great a threat as the 1995 sarin attack on a Tokyo subway by the Aum Shinrikyo cult.
- If an accident involving an organophosphorus nerve agent occurs, individuals who have been poisoned may have only minutes to receive the antidote and emergency medical personnel may not be able to assist everyone in need. To further complicate matters, federal government stockpiles of chemical nerve agent antidotes would not be accessible for immediate use.
- Barriers to EMS readiness continue, especially for large-scale emergencies, such as natural disasters and terrorist attacks. EMS preparedness challenges have been linked to gaps in federal funding, education and training, equipment and supplies, and planning and coordination between agencies.
- Most first responders report feeling vastly underprepared and underprotected for a disaster involving a chemical, biological, or radiological agent/weapon. And the level of personal protection equipment available to emergency responders for these threats varies widely by region and service.
- First-line antidotes for organophosphorus nerve agent poisoning have been supplied to state and local first responders since the 1990s.
- Antidotes are eligible for purchase through DHS grants. For more information about FY 2008 allocations, visit http://www.dhs.gov/xlibrary/assets/grant-program-overview-fy2008.pdf.