What are the most common HazMat threats for first responders?

by Steven Pike, Argon Electronics

The unintentional release of toxic chemicals can pose a wide range of physical, health and environmental hazards. And when it comes to the storage, handling or transport of hazardous materials (HazMat), safety is paramount.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) defines HazMat as any substance that is potentially harmful to human health or the environment. 

While there are a multitude of precautions that industries will take to stay safe, in the event of accidental spillage due to a road traffic accident or as the result of an industrial incident, highly trained HazMat crews will be called on to mitigate the threat.

In this article, we explore eight of the most common hazardous materials that first responders are likely to encounter in the event of an industrial accident or road transport incident.

1) Carbon Dioxide

Refrigerated carbon dioxide is a colorless, odorless, non-flammable gas used to chill or freeze food products as part of the process of transport to market.

Although non-toxic, when carbon dioxide displaces oxygen in confined spaces the carbon dioxide vapors can cause headache, nausea, dizziness or asphyxiation. And when carbon dioxide comes into contact with skin it can also cause severe burns.

When responding to incidents where C02 is stored, firefighters need to be alert to the possibility of leakages. A low oxygen meter should be used to determine that an area is safe for occupancy.

2) Chlorine

Chlorine is a key component in the production of key industrial and consumer products including the vast majority of pharmaceutical production and virtually all crop protection chemicals.

It is a highly reactive and volatile substance, particularly when in the presence of heat, and is considered to be among the most dangerous of hazardous materials.

Chlorine is classified as both a Toxic Inhalation Hazard (TIH) and a Poison Inhalation Hazard (PIH).

3) Fireworks

Both the transport and storage of consumer fireworks pose a high fire risk. In the United Kingdom (UK), the physical movement (transfer) of explosives from one place to another (excluding those moved within a site) requires a Recipient Competent Authority (RCA) document. 

According to the UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) a license is required from an appropriate licensing authority in order to be able to store explosives, however depending on their hazard type certain quantities of explosives can be kept for a short time without the need for a license. 

In the US, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has issued mandatory safety regulations for fireworks devices that are regulated under the Federal Hazardous Substances Act.

4) Gasoline

Typical gasoline contains approximately 150 different chemicals including benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene.

The highly flammable nature of gasoline, the ease with which it evaporates and its explosive potential in air, makes it a high exposure risk. Gasoline exposure can occur through the breathing of gasoline vapours, via the drinking of contaminated water or by coming into contact with contaminated soil.

Gasoline should only be stored in approved containers and must not be handled near any ignition source.

5) Argon

A refrigerated liquid, Argon is most commonly used in the production of fluorescent light bulbs and in welding.

Argon is classed as neither flammable nor toxic, however it can cause significant tissue damage if it comes into contact with skin and it can be extremely harmful if inhaled. To avoid sudden releases Argon is transported in upright cylinders.

6) Sulfuric Acid

Sulfuric acid (also known as “battery acid”, “hydrgen sulfate” and “oil of vitriol”) is one of the most important compounds in the chemical industry. The annual production of sulfuric acid worldwide has been predicted to hit 260 million tonnes by the end of 2018. 

Sulfuric acid is used widely in the production of phosphate fertilizers, metal processing, lead-based batteries, fiber production and chemical manufacturing (including paints, pigments, dyes and synthetic detergents.)

It is a highly corrosive substance which is destructive to skin, eyes, teeth and lungs. Severe exposure can be fatal.

7) Propylene

Propylene is a volatile, flammable gas used as a crucial product in the petrochemical, packaging and plastics industries.

It is often used in the place of propane in high-velocity oxygen fuel (HVOF) processes. Propylene gas poses a fire hazard when it is handled in the vicinity of any equipment capable of causing ignition.

8) Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG)

Comprising a combination of propane and butane, LPG is commonly used as both a fuel (to heat vehicles and appliances) and as a refrigerant. Its mixture of hydrocarbon gases poses a major fire risk which means it must be stored in pressured vessels.

Toxic chemicals can pose a wide range of potential health and physical hazards to those employees operating within industrial plants and to the personnel charged with handling or transporting these substances. And as such they are heavily regulated.

In the rare case of accidental release, the knowledge of HazMat crews can provide life-saving assistance in identifying the threat, containing the area and mitigating the effects of the incident. 

This article was first published on the Argon Electronics website.

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About the Author

Steven Pike is the Founder and Managing Director of Argon Electronics, a leader in the development and manufacture of Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) and hazardous material (HazMat) detector simulators.
He is interested in liaising with CBRN professionals and detector manufacturers to develop training simulators as well as CBRN trainers and exercise planners to enhance their capability and improve the quality of CBRN and Hazmat training.