4 Lessons on Chemical Safety Ripped from the Headlines

January 2011 has been an interesting month for followers of chemical safety. Here are four stories about things gone wrong, which, at their core, have something to teach us.

Most Dangerous Hazards May Be Under Foot

From the Chicago Tribune comes the story of extremely high levels of toxic chemicals in common driveway sealants. In the article, Michael Hawthorne reports that dust from coal-tar based sealants in McHenry County were contaminated with benzo(a)pryrene  at levels 5300 times higher than the threshold required to trigger an EPA Superfund cleanup.

Not solely an Illinois problem, Hawthorne says parking lots and driveways in Texas, Michigan, Minneapolis, Connecticut, and D.C. also tested at high levels. According to the article 85 million gallons of coal-tar sealants are sold in the U.S. annually.

According to Hawthorne, coal-tar manufacturers debate the degree to which sealants are responsible for high levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) in the environment, saying , in essence, that they are but one source of PAH. (PAH is a group of toxins found in coal-tar and to which benzo(a)pryrene belongs).

Regardless of the source, coal-tar, the article explains, has long been linked to health issues and the levels of PAH in the environment is on the rise.

The lesson: The hazards which pose the most serious health hazards might be the ones literally beneath our feet; and sustainability is as much about undoing past damages as it is taking a greener direction going forward.

Murphy’s Law Approach to Safety

More recently, area news outlets reported on a chemical spill in Marlborough, MA that sent 20 people to the hospital with minor injuries and respiratory issues.

According to a Marlborough Fire Department (MFD) press release, the MFD responded to a chemical incident in the lab of a local manufacturer. Upon arrival, they found the building “was not evacuated… and [the] MFD activated the fire alarm system to evacuate the building, cordoned off the lab area and notified the State Hazmat Team for a tier 1 investigative response.”

The release stated that the manufacturer had called its own environmental clean-up company prior to calling the MFD and said others people/agencies responding to the scene included the fire chief, the Mayor, representatives from the City’s Emergency Management and Board of Health and the Massachusetts’s Department of Environmental Protection. OSHA was also notified.

While awaiting the hazmat team, the MFD used MSDSs to determine what chemicals were in the lab area. An hour after the first report, evacuated workers began experiencing respiratory problems, and 18 people were transported to hospitals.

The press release concluded by saying, “The District 3 Hazmat Team from the Department of Fire Services arrived and began an initial recon of the laboratory area in an attempt to find out what caused the release. A plastic drum with a capacity 20 to 30 gallons of product had apparently ruptured under pressure, causing the release. Clean Harbors arrived to do the cleanup. The building will remain closed until the lab area is cleaned and air samples taken throughout the building.”

If you are in charge of safety for your company or have hazardous chemicals in your workplace, you should ask yourself the following questions:

  • What if this had happened at your facility?
  • Are your employees trained in the safe handling of chemicals?
  • Do they know what to do in the event of a chemical spill?
  • Do you have ready access to your MSDSs?
  • Are your chemicals containers properly stored and labeled?
  • Are you ready for a visit from the fire chief, the mayor, the fire department, the board of health, the state’s environmental protection agency, OSHA?

The Lesson: When it comes to chemical safety, and hazard communication, we must be prepared for worst case scenarios. Doing so is the best way to keep employees safe and to guard against their occurrences in the first place.

Environmental Tragedy Hanging in the Balance

This next story comes from Germany where Spiegel Online is reporting on a tanker carrying 2400 tons of sulfuric acid that capsized on the Rhine River. The accident occurred almost a week ago, yet the tanker remains on its side blocking traffic on one of Europe’s busiest water way waiting for cranes to upright the vessel and two of the four crew members are still missing.

According to Spiegel reporter, Mary Beth Warner, there is no indication that any sulfuric acid has leaked from the tanker, which is good news for the many towns downstream that draw their drinking water from the Rhine. The not so good news,  over 240 ships are backed up on the Rhine awaiting passage – costing the respective owners of those ships upwards of $2,670 a day.

A picturesque location for a chemical incident, as this Spiegel Online photo gallery shows, the bend in the river where the ship went down is notorious for accidents and near the Lorelei, a rock named for the “mythical mermaid who lured fishermen to their deaths by singing the most beautiful song they had ever heard.”

With luck, the ship will be up righted and the sulfuric acid secured without further incident. In the mean time, the hulking vessel, barely peeking out from the swollen Rhine, severs as a reminder of how connected industry and the environment are.

The Lesson: Precious little time and space separates the everyday from disaster, especially when it comes to the transport of chemicals on public roadways/waterways. There is no longer any separation between industry and the greater community.

What’s In Your Water?

Finally, back in Chicago, the Chicago Tribune reported that Chicago will begin testing drinking water for hexavalent chromium (Chromium 6) at the EPA’s urging.

Actually, the EPA recommends all drinking water agencies across the U.S. test for Chromium-6.

The EPA is concerned that chromium-6 poses greater health risks than previously thought or allowed for in the maximum contaminant level standard, which is currently set at 0.1 mg/L. That standard is for total chromium, which includes chromium-3, an “essential nutrient”.

According to the Tribune article, an independent laboratory hired to test drinking water in Chicago found chromium-6 at levels nine times higher than the maximum standard being pursued by the state of California, which is at the forefront of meeting the chromium-6 challenge.  California's chromium-6 goal is 0.02 parts per billion; Chicago levels were at 0.18 parts per billion.

In related news, CBS reported on chromium-6 levels in Northwest Indiana, saying chromium-6 tests showed very different levels along the northern shore.

It reported that “the highest level measured in the last six years was 35.4 parts per billion in Cedar Lake, according to the Environmental Working Group. That's well below the 100 part standard set by EPA, but nearly 600 times the 0.06 parts per billion that California recommends is safe for "bad" chromium.” [As noted above, California's goal is 0.02 parts per billion.]

It’s almost certain that the drinking water agencies in your area are doing similar testing, a quick search on the website of your local paper might provide surprising details about the water you’re drinking.

A concern expressed by many followers of this news is not what’s being tested, but rather, what isn’t. Standards for drinking water, and the range of chemicals tested for have remained static for sometime. Some people fear, what we don’t know might be hurting us.

The Lesson: When it comes to hazardous chemical safety, assume nothing. Our understanding of chemicals and their hazards, and just how present they are in our day-to-day routines, is expanding every day. The best weapon is to stay informed.