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Secret agents: Hazardous material dangers

They aren’t always stored in sealed metal drums — and many are around us every day

POSTED: September 20, 2009 12:30 a.m.

A "hazardous material" label may seem like some elusive category of products, but they are more common than you would think.

They can be found in propane tanks stored at the gas station where you fuel up your vehicle or even in the lithium batteries used to power many digital cameras.

According to officials with the Institute of Hazardous Materials Management, a hazardous material is "any item or agent (biological, chemical, physical) which has the potential to cause harm to humans, animals or the environment, either by itself or through interaction with other factors."

While hazardous materials may seem synonymous with large industries, they are also common in everyday life.

"Hazardous materials are a very broad (category)," said Hall County Fire Chief David Kimbrell, also Hall County’s Emergency Management Agency director.

"Everything that can be hazardous may not seem hazardous. Some of the household hazards that (the fire department) encounters is bleach and ammonia — when they mix together they can cause breathing problems."

Ammonia is also one of the more popular industrial hazardous chemicals found throughout the area, most often used as a refrigerant, Kimbrell said.

Other chemicals like the chlorine that is used to treat water or the flavorings used to produce gum can carry the hazardous label.

"Everyone handles and moves hazardous materials all day, every day," Kimbrell said. "Not all hazardous materials are the type that will (harm) you if they spill on you. Sometimes it is the quantities of the chemicals that can make them hazardous."

Due to the prevalence of hazardous materials, businesses are not required to report every on-site chemical.

"The (Environmental Protection Agency) has a list of every hazardous material and thresholds for reporting quantities," Kimbrell said. "For instance, a business may have 99 gallons of Chemical X, but the EPA’s reporting threshold could be 100 gallons, so the business isn’t required to report that they have the chemical."

According to William Wright, Hall County Emergency Management Agency coordinator, there are more than 100 reporting businesses in Hall County.

The agency uses the information provided by reporting businesses to create plans to handle emergency situations like hazardous material spills and on-site fires. Individuals businesses are also responsible for creating their own emergency plans.

When handled and stored properly, hazardous materials don’t pose a threat to the community; however, there have been numerous instances when the materials have created a problem.

In 1998, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board was established to investigate industrial chemical accidents "to determine the conditions and circumstances which led up to the event and to identify the cause or causes so that similar events might be prevented."

Since being created, the board has investigated hundreds of incidents, some involving procedural issues, others involving human error.

One of the most recently closed investigations occurred last year at the Imperial Sugar Refinery near Savannah. On Feb. 7, 2008, a large explosion and fire at the refinery caused 14 deaths and injured an additional 38 victims. After more than a year of investigating, the safety board concluded that the explosion was "fueled by accumulations of combustible sugar dust throughout the packaging building."

Although the safety board doesn’t have the authority to fine or cite businesses, it does make safety recommendations to companies, labor groups and regulatory agencies like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the EPA.

In case there is a hazardous spill that residents should be aware of, the Hall County EMA has the authority to broadcast emergency information through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association weather radio systems.

"I always push for everyone to purchase a NOAA weather radio," Wright has said. "More than weather information comes out through the NOAA radios, so it is very important for everyone to have one."

Although more specific directions would be given if there is an actual hazardous material spill, there are some things that residents should be aware of in advance.

According to Federal Emergency Management Agency, during such an incident, individuals should remember to stay "upstream, uphill and upwind" of such sites — at least eight to 10 city blocks away. Because vapors from the spill can be especially hazardous, residents are also encouraged to close all doors, windows and vents, including those on air conditioning units.



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