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Hazardous materials release emergency preparedness

Learn more about preparing for if hazardous materials are released near you.

Hazardous materials are prevalent throughout our region. While industry is the primary user and maintainer of hazardous items, we also have them in our homes, in our cars, and at our places of work and recreation. Hazardous materials move through our region on highways, rail lines, pipelines, and by ship and barge through Puget Sound. When not properly contained, these materials pose a potential risk to life, health, the environment, and property. Hazardous materials may be explosive, flammable, combustible, corrosive, reactive, poisonous, or radioactive, as well as solid, liquid, or gaseous.

The geographic and economic characteristics of King County make it likely that hazardous materials releases will occur. Our diverse industrial facilities and transportation routes share space with numerous bodies of water, wetlands, environmentally sensitive areas, and densely-populated areas, creating zones of great potential risk for a hazardous materials release.

Business types that commonly use hazardous materials locally include: hospitals, schools, metal plating and finishing, aircraft manufacturing, public utilities, cold storage companies, fuel industry, communication industry, chemical distributors, research facilities, and high technology firms. Each of these facilities is required to maintain plans for warning, notification, evacuation, and site security.

It can also happen at home

Additional potential causes of hazardous materials releases may include terrorism incidents and illegal drug labs or dumping. Illegal drug labs present a special concern due to the fact that each must be treated as a chemical hazard site and decontaminated before the property can be used again.

Many factors determine the impact of a potential hazardous materials incidents, including quick and solid decision-making by emergency officials, location and type of release, evacuation and shelter-in-place needs, public heath concerns, and relevant economic considerations.

However, most victims of chemical accidents are injured at home. These incidents usually result from lack of knowledge or carelessness in using flammable and combustible liquids. And as many as 500,000 products pose physical or health hazards that can be defined as "hazardous chemicals."

Exposure to hazardous materials can exist on many levels including at home, as part of your work, or as a result of a major spill, leak or release that can affect a large geographical area. Learn what you can do to better safeguard your personal environment and how to respond if an incident does occur.

Prepare for a hazardous material release

  • Learn if there are any transportation routes or facilities near you where hazardous materials are transported and used, the types of chemicals used, and the potential impact if there were a release. Consider rail lines, freeways, and chemical plants or businesses that use, store, or process chemicals.
  • Be prepared to shelter in place.
  • Take the following precautions to prevent home accidents:
    • Buy only as much chemical as you think you will use.
    • Keep products containing hazardous materials in their original containers and never remove the labels unless the container is corroding. Corroding containers should be repackaged and clearly labeled. Never store hazardous products in food containers.
    • Follow the manufacturer's instructions for the proper use of household chemicals.
    • Never mix household hazardous chemicals or waste with other products. Incompatibles, such as chlorine bleach and ammonia, may react, ignite, or explode.
    • Never smoke while using household chemicals.
    • Never use hair spray, cleaning solutions, paint products, or pesticides near an open flame such as a pilot light, lighted candle, fireplace, or wood burning stove. Although you may not be able to see or smell them, vapors in the air could catch fire or explode.
    • Clean up any chemical spill immediately. Wear gloves and eye protection.
    • Dispose of hazardous materials correctly. Take household hazardous waste to a local collection program. Check with your county or state environmental or solid waste agency to learn if there is a household hazardous waste collection program in your area.
    • Keep all medicines, cosmetics, cleaning products, and other household chemicals out of sight and out of reach of children and use child-resistant packaging. Replace the caps tightly after using the product.
    • Learn to recognize the symptoms of toxic poisoning, which may include:
      • Difficulty breathing
      • Irritation of the eyes, skin, throat or respiratory tract
      • Changes in skin color
      • Headache or blurred vision
      • Dizziness
      • Clumsiness or lack of coordination
      • Cramps or diarrhea

Be prepared to seek medical assistance - post the number of the emergency medical services and the poison control center by all telephones. In an emergency situation, you may not have time to look up critical phone numbers. The Washington Poison Control number is 1-800-222-1222.

During a hazardous material release

Major hazardous materials emergency

  • You will be notified about the emergency by authorities, either directly and/or through the Emergency Alert System (EAS) or other methods. Listen carefully to local media or NOAA Weather Radio for information. You should receive information on the type of hazard, area affected, how to protect yourself, evacuation routes (if necessary), shelter locations, type and location of medical facilities, and phone numbers you need to call if you need extra help.
  • Do not call 9-1-1 for information. Dial 9-1-1 only for a possible life-threatening emergency.
  • Always evacuate if told to do so. Remember to take your emergency supply kit with you.
  • If caught outside, stay away from the accident site. Stay upstream, uphill, and upwind. In general, try to go at least one-half mile (usually eight to ten city blocks) from the danger area. Do not walk into or touch any spilled liquids, airborne mists, or condensed solid chemical deposits.
  • If advised by emergency officials to stay indoors, shelter in place.
    • Close and lock all exterior doors and windows. Close vents, fireplace dampers, and as many interior doors as possible.
    • Turn off air conditioners and ventilation systems. In large buildings, set ventilation system to 100 percent recirculation so that no outside air is drawn into the building. If this is not possible, ventilation systems should be turned off.
    • Go into a predetermined shelter room. This room should be above ground and have the fewest openings to the outside.
    • If you have the materials, seal the room by covering each window, door, and vent using plastic sheeting and duct tape.
    • Use material to fill cracks and holes in the room, such as those around pipes.

  • Act quickly if you have come in contact with or have been exposed to hazardous chemicals.
    • Follow decontamination instructions from local authorities. You may be advised to take a thorough shower, or to stay away from water and follow another procedure.
    • Seek medical treatment for unusual symptoms as soon as possible.
    • Place exposed clothing and shoes in tightly sealed containers. Do not allow them to contact other materials. Call local authorities to find out proper cleaning or disposal methods.
    • Advise everyone who comes into contact with you that you have been exposed to a toxic substance.

  • If evacuated, return only when authorities say it is safe. Open windows and vents and turn on fans to provide ventilation.

  • Report any lingering vapors or other hazards to your local authorities.

  • Listen to local media or NOAA Weather Radio for current information.

Household hazardous materials emergency

  • If there is a danger of fire or explosion, get out of the house immediately. Do not waste time collecting items or calling the fire department when you are in danger.
    • Call 9-1-1 once you are safely away from danger.
    • Stay upwind and away from the residence to avoid breathing toxic fumes.
  • If someone has been exposed to a chemical:
    • Call 9-1-1. Find any containers of the substance that are readily available in order to provide requested information.
    • Follow the emergency dispatcher's first aid instructions carefully. The first aid advice found on containers may be out of date or inappropriate. Do not give anything by mouth unless advised to do so by a medical professional.
    • Discard clothing that may have been contaminated. Place exposed clothing and shoes in tightly sealed containers. Do not allow them to contact other materials. Call local authorities to find out proper cleaning or disposal methods.