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Emergency Preparedness and Response for Chemical and Radiation Emergencies

A chemical or radiation emergency may occur when there is an unplanned and uncontrolled release of hazardous materials. These types of disasters can occur accidentally due to safety control failures or mishandling of a chemical or radiation source. Radiation and chemicals can also be used as an intentional attack. They can have devastating effects on human and environmental health. They require prompt and careful assessment to ensure appropriate handling and response.

Rural communities are at risk for emergencies from hazardous materials due to the large volume and use of certain chemicals in rural areas. For example, farming and agriculture may use large volumes of toxic chemicals; rural industries and facilities may involve hazardous material production, use, and disposal; and transportation of chemicals and other hazardous materials often occurs to, from, and through rural areas via roads, rails, and waterways.

Chemical Emergencies

A chemical emergency occurs when a hazardous chemical agent is released, either accidentally or intentionally. defines chemical agents as “poisonous vapors, aerosols, liquids, and solids that have toxic effects on people, animals, or plants.”

Signs that a harmful chemical has been released may include physical symptoms among people, such as eye irritation, nausea, and difficulty breathing. It may also include environmental signs, such as a large number of dead insects or birds. Chemical agents can cause death but are difficult to intentionally deliver in deadly amounts because they dissipate quickly outdoors and are hard to produce.

Types of Radiation Emergencies

The CDC defines the different types of radiation emergencies:

  • Nuclear Emergencies – These involve the “explosion of a nuclear weapon or improvised nuclear device (IND),” which produces “an intense pulse of heat, light, air pressure, and radiation,” and “fallout, radioactive materials that can be carried long distances by the wind.” These types of emergencies result in extensive destruction. It can cause injury, death, burns, vision impairment, and acute radiation sickness in people as well as contamination of food and water.
  • Radiological Dispersal Device (RDD) – These are known as dirty bombs. They contain “explosives such as dynamite, with radioactive powder pellets,” whose “blast carries radioactive material into the surrounding area.” A dirty bomb explosion can seriously injure people and damage property. Those closest to the explosion site may become sick from radiation exposure, and the spread of radioactive dust may result in food and water contamination.
  • Radiological Exposure Device (RED) – This is also known as a hidden sealed source. It is “made of or contains radioactive material” and is “hidden from sight to expose people to radiation without their knowledge.” Exposure effects vary, ranging in severity from no effects to cancer or death.
  • Nuclear Power Plant Accidents – These can result in the release of radiation into the environment. There are many systems in place to safeguard against this. Further, nuclear power plants are monitored by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Following an accident, the release of radiation over an area can cause contamination in the environment.
  • Transportation Accidents – These occur when radioactive materials are released into the environment due to an accident. These types of accidents are rare and unlikely to result in contact or exposure to radiation.
  • Occupational Accidents – These may occur within healthcare facilities, research institutions, manufacturing operations, or other facilities that house radiation sources. Health effects will vary depending on the circumstances of the exposures.

Planning Considerations

Most components of a multi- or all-hazards planning and response approach are applicable to chemical and radiation emergencies, and emergency planners can expand on existing preparedness capabilities as well. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Implementing Public Health Preparedness Capabilities outline preparedness functions, resource elements, and priorities related to radiation emergencies such as assessing internal contamination and radiation exposure through laboratory testing, providing personal protective equipment (PPE) and other safety equipment for responder safety and health, and treating internal contamination through medical countermeasure dispensing.

In rural areas, emergency preparedness in farming and agriculture includes having a comprehensive emergency action plan. This plan should address natural disasters and man-made emergencies, including chemical spills. In particular, plans should address agrochemicals, which are chemical products used in agriculture, such as pesticides.

Iowa State University's Center for Food Security and Public Health provides preparedness guidance related to chemical spills for farms:

  • Prevent agrochemical spills – Prevent chemical spills by reading chemical labels for proper use and handling; use the appropriate equipment to store, transport, and use chemicals; and keep application equipment well-maintained and stored safely.
  • Have a spill response plan – Develop a response plan that includes an inventory of chemical products, an evacuation plan, proper cleaning procedures, and more.
  • Report spills – Chemical spills should be reported to the state's agricultural or environmental agencies.
  • Respond to spills – Farm workers can respond to a chemical spill by following the three C's: caution, control/contain, and clean up.

For additional information, guidance, and training on radiation emergencies, see CDC's Radiation Emergency Training, Education, and Tools, which offers practical tools, such as training in offering Psychological First Aid in Radiation Disasters and Crisis Communication in Radiation Emergencies.

Response and Recovery Considerations

Rural communities should provide supports to ensure that community members are prepared to respond to chemical or radiation events. CDC guidance for individuals in a radiation emergency is to get inside (if outdoors at the time of the emergency), stay inside, and stay tuned to news updates. CDC guidance for individuals in a chemical emergency is to get away from the emergency site, get the chemical agent off the body, and seek help by going to a hospital or calling the Poison Control Center or 911.

Accidental radiation and chemical emergencies can occur inside buildings, and buildings can also be targeted as an attack site. Ongoing building maintenance is an important part of preparedness and response and should focus on implementing measures that protect building occupants. For information on protecting buildings against chemical, biological, and radiological attacks, please see Protecting Building Environments in Module 4: Emergency Preparedness and Response for Bioterrorism.

Chemical and radiation emergencies can have devastating environmental impacts. When state or local response capabilities have been exhausted or when asked for assistance, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) aids in responding to oil spills and chemical, biological, and radiation emergencies. The EPA Emergency Response page offers additional information and resources on environmental emergencies, such as the Local Governments Reimbursement Program and the Environmental Response Laboratory Network (ERLN).

Emergency Preparedness and Response Case Studies

Ethanol Plant Disaster Creates Environmental and Human Health Concerns for Rural Community in Mead, Nebraska
In 2021, an ethanol production plant in Mead, Nebraska, was shut down for safety violations in pesticide chemical waste management following a contaminant wastewater spill, despite earlier safety violations. In 2015, the plant switched from an environmentally friendly practice, where normal excess grain and seed was used and the seed byproduct was used as cattle feed, to a practice that uses recycled seed corn that had been treated with insecticides and fungicides, which produces a byproduct that is too toxic for cattle. This switch resulted in toxins being present at the plant at 1,000 times the legal limit. Combined, the wastewater spill and the high toxin levels pose environmental and public health concerns for the rural town. The University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) contributed to response efforts by forming an investigative group to conduct ecological sampling and health surveying in the Mead community. The ecological sampling will determine the environmental health impacts by examining air, water, groundwater, soil, vegetation, small animal, and pollinator insect samples. Similarly, the health surveying will examine the human health impact for Mead community members by tracking symptoms and testing blood and urine samples that may indicate toxic exposure and presence of chemicals.

Acid Leak Demonstrates Necessity of Strong Partnerships in Surry County, North Carolina
In September 2021, volunteer fire departments in Surry County responded to a cloud of smoke rising from a private citizen's barn. When the fire departments realized it was a chemical cloud, the county HAZMAT group was called to lessen the fumes, and a cleaning company specializing in HAZMAT finished cleaning the area. Due to concerns about the cloud moving to the next town over, social media and an emergency notification system were used to notify residents within 5 miles of the incident.

Resources to Learn More

Office of Emerging Threats
Provides information and tools to support the response capabilities for emergency responders at the state, tribal, local, and territorial level related to chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear hazards.
Organization(s): Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)

Chemical Emergency Considerations for Healthcare Facilities
Provides information and applications to assist healthcare facilities when planning and responding to chemical emergencies, thereby reducing disruptions affecting the provision of medical care. Covers preparedness practices, response management, staffing, patient care, fatality management, and communication.
Organization(s): Administration for Strategic Preparedness and Response (ASPR), Technical Resources, Assistance Center, and Information Exchange (TRACIE)

Topic Collection: Chemical Hazards
Offers information and resources targeted to chemically exposed patient evaluation and treatment. Assists emergency responder and healthcare providers to identify chemical hazards and to prepare, respond, and treat victims of related events.
Organization(s): Administration for Strategic Preparedness and Response (ASPR), Technical Resources, Assistance Center, and Information Exchange (TRACIE)

Topic Collection: Radiological and Nuclear
Offers reference guides, training, toolkits, manuals, and modeling and simulation reports to assist first responders and healthcare-based first receivers when assessing and treating victims of nuclear detonation or radiological release. Topics include evaluating exposure, population monitoring, considerations for pediatric care, and lessons learned from related experiences.
Organization(s): Administration for Strategic Preparedness and Response (ASPR), Technical Resources, Assistance Center, and Information Exchange (TRACIE)