We live in a society that depends on hazardous materials to create the technological wonders and comforts we expect for everyday life. Whether you take your kids to a swimming pool or drink any sort of city water, you knowingly or unknowingly depend on large amounts of chlorine to ensure the water is safe. Anywhere there is a mechanic shop there are chemicals required to lubricate, clean, and repair materials; some of those chemicals are potentially dangerous or deadly. As you drive down the highway you see thousands of semi-trucks carting loads of materials that could be more deadly than a chemical warfare agent. Trains transport the same cargo as semi-trucks in larger quantity, sometimes dozens or hundreds of different chemicals in the same train which could have terrible consequences if there were to be a derailment. You may even live near a chemical plant that creates these materials, and you have no clue what type of dangers could be presented in the event of an emergency.
This article is by no means designed to scare you or to encourage you to try and protest against these chemicals being used, produced, or transported through your area. Chemical transport is regulated, your local fire department has at least basic training, if not hazardous materials response capabilities, and quite frankly it is a good thing that we have these wonderful technologies to make our lives better. However, it is prudent to have some basic knowledge on how to recognize various chemicals, which are traveling the roads and railroads near you and to have an understanding of proper precautions to take if there is an emergency. One more clarification is necessary, and I will re-iterate this at appropriate points in the article: there is no single solution or mask or suit or detector you can buy to make you and your family completely safe in the event of a hazardous materials incident. If anyone ever tells you that a particular mask or filter or suit will be the perfect protection for everything, they are misleading you and are attempting to provide you with information that is both incorrect and terribly dangerous.
I am a CBRN defense specialist in the Marine Corps with 16 years experience. I am qualified at the hazardous materials technician level through the Marine Corps; I have gone through the Army’s Technical Escort course; I have done many training exercises in Level A, B, and C protection; and I regularly instruct this information to Marines and soldiers. All of the information I will present is available in some great open source publications. (I will discuss two very good and easily readable references I would suggest you become familiar with.) By no means can reading this information in an article EVER provide anyone enough know-how to actually respond to a hazardous material incident. This article is intended to provide the reader with an awareness of what is out there and what reasonable steps you can take if you are faced with a hazardous materials incident.
The best reference, IMHO, you can use to become aware of the hazardous materials around you is the Emergency Response Guidebook (ERG). This book is published every four years by the U.S. Department of Transportation. The current ERG is the 2012 edition. This book will NOT tell you everything about a chemical; it is designed to provide initial safety recommendations for a hazardous materials incident. I would also suggest that unless you plan on becoming part of a volunteer fire department or get a job as a HazMat tech, there is no need to go any further that the precautions outlined in the ERG; it would not be feasible to outfit yourself with enough gear to really be safe and stay in the area or clean something up, and quite frankly, you would run up against a plethora of laws and regulations if you attempted to do any more than just protect yourself and your family from the threat of an incident. I will use the 2012 ERG page numbers to explain how the publication works. Be aware that these numbers may change in subsequent editions (2016, 2020, etc). The ERG is divided into five sections with some information at the end of the publication for using the manual. The non-bordered white pages (1-19) are general information to include some basic transport container designs, DOT hazard placards, and information on other warnings one might see on vehicles, trains, tankers, and pipelines that transport hazardous materials. The yellow bordered pages (20-89) use DOT ID numbers (which would be labeled on the placards shown in pages 6-7) to identify chemicals and provide you with the guide number (orange highlighted pages) to look for safety distances and response recommendations. The blue pages (90-157) use the actual chemical name to provide you with the guide number to look at for safety; in addition they provide the DOT ID number for the chemical. The orange highlighted pages (158-283) contain the various guide numbers. Each guide number is related to a group of similar chemicals. These guide numbers give you information concerning fire and explosion risk, health risk, general public safety response, protective clothing, recommended evacuation distances, what to do if there is a fire or spill, and first aid measures. The last section has both white and green labeled pages (285-355). This section is a basic initial hazard area recommendation for use by responders if the chemical identified has a green highlight in either the yellow or blue pages. Any chemical highlighted green has a specific danger of having the potential to have a downwind inhalation hazard. It uses the DOT ID number and guide number to provide initial isolation (safe distances) and protection (follow on safe distances for downwind hazards) for both small and large spills. Just so you know, HazMat responders would use the green pages as an initial guide; there is a LOT of hazard plume plotting software available to teams that can provide much more accurate distances. After the green section, the ERG has a user’s guide as well as some general discussion on protective gear and emergency numbers to call in case of an incident.
So how could the ERG be used by someone who is not a first responder or HazMat technician responsible for actually mitigating the issue? The best thing this guide does is to give you a basic understanding of how to recognize what types of vehicles transport various types of chemicals where you live. Using this guide you can keep an eye out for semi-trucks and trains in your area, notice the shape of the trailers or train cars (pages 8 and 9), and get a general understanding of what is transported. If you do this over time, you will have a good general idea on the types of hazards in your area, if there were to be an accident, earthquake, or something that could cause these vehicles to release the material they are transporting. For example, on page 9 of the ERG, one of the illustrations is of the DOT 412/TC 412/SCT 312 type trailer which is designed to carry corrosive liquids. If you take a look at the picture and then compare it to what you have seen on the highway, you can determine that any time you see a smaller diameter cylindrical semi-trailer with multiple visible ribs circling the trailer, you can generally assume that vehicle is carrying a corrosive of some sort, maybe an acid. In addition to looking at the design of the trailer, you can look at pages 6 and 7 and see various DOT placards that are required on hazardous shipments. One or more placards will be on the back or side of a trailer; the placard will be of the same design shown in the ERG, and it will have a four-digit number specifying the chemical. For instance, if you noticed one of those DOT 412 trailers, you would probably see one of the placards labeled 153 on page 7—a black and white placard with a test tube pouring a liquid on a hand and a piece of material. One possible number you may see written on that placard could be 1789. If you look in the yellow pages, you can see that a DOT 412 trailer with a placard number 1798 is probably transporting either Hydrochloric acid or Muriatic acid (page 38 of the yellow pages), and the guide number for those chemicals is 157. If there were an accident (or just to know the potential danger), you could then flip to guide number 157 in the orange pages (page 252) and see the various potential dangers from that cargo. However, you would not use the green pages in this instance because there is not a danger of a significant downwind inhalation hazard past the isolation area recommended in the orange pages; you know this because DOT ID number 1798 was not highlighted in green on page 38. You can take the time to look at the various transport vehicles in your area, tally them down, and identify just what potential hazards you may have going through your area with the ERG. A nice thing about the ERG is that it is publicly available online, and you can order physical copies of them through the DOT website. This is a good site to go to access the ERG. You can also use a search engine to look for the ERG and be directed right to a PDF copy of it.
Another good publication is the NIOSH guide to Chemical Hazards. This guide is put out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It provides specific pertinent information about hundreds of widely used chemicals, including trade names for the chemical, physical description, chemical and physical properties, personal precautions, respirator recommendations, any other types of chemicals which could cause a reaction to this chemical, how the chemical would get into your system, and first aid. The NIOSH guide is a bit more in-depth and uses a lot of acronyms and key words that you would have to familiarize yourself with, but all of the information can be found in the front of the book in pages vii-xxx. Although this is a great book for information and can be found online for free. There is one point I would like to make about this guide. If you decide to look through the guide, you will find hundreds of different chemicals, most of which have the potential to be transported through your area. However, there are also certain chemical warfare agents listed that would not be transported through your area. As you look through the guide, you will notice that each of them have very different protection requirements. This is important to understand. I have noticed through conversation with both civilians and military personnel that there is a clear misunderstanding of how protection works with chemicals. On the military side, many people assume that MOPP (Mission Oriented Protective Posture) gear and an M-40 or M-50 series field protective mask will protect against anything. This is not the case! Military chemical over-garments and field protective masks are specifically designed for chemical warfare agents. Chemical warfare agents (CWAs) are specific chemicals (blood agents, blister agents, nerve agents, and choking agents) that have long shelf lives, can be weaponized, and are used in large quantities on the battlefield. In recent years, there has been an awakening in the military to the threat of Toxic Industrial Materials (TIMs). TIMs include industrial chemicals (what I am discussing in this article), industrial biologicals, and industrial radiologicals. Military gear and its equivalent, which is often the stuff you can buy online, is not necessarily capable of protecting against all of these threats. Also, one quick note on the military-style gear you can purchase online: there are shelf lives with all military gear. I imagine that a lot of the old military gear you can get online may very well be past its shelf life, so it may not even be completely effective for what it was originally designed for.