Chemical Emergencies


A chemical emergency involves the discharge or release of hazardous liquids, gases or solids. It can happen as a result of an industrial accident, failed infrastructure or an intentional attack. Anywhere hazardous products are manufactured, transported or stored can potentially be the site of a chemical release. The risks associated with a chemical release include explosions, poisoning and environmental contamination. This insight will focus primarily on the human health and environmental concerns related to a chemical emergency.

In every situation involving a chemical release, human activity creates the risk – whether through manufacturing, transportation or storage. As a result, it is essential to recognize that the ability to mitigate the risk associated with chemical release lies solely with humans, unlike the risk associated with many other types of disasters.

In many situations, the manufacturing of chemicals – whether the creation of new ones or refining one into another – involves more than just those specific materials. Many processes rely on additional chemicals as part of the manufacturing or refining process. For example, the process of extracting gold requires sodium cyanide, zinc and sulfuric acid, each toxic in the right amounts. After Hurricane Harvey, a refinery belonging to Valero Energy released the toxic gas benzene from a ruptured tank. Health officials measured benzene concentrations of up to 324 parts per billion – higher than the level at which special breathing equipment is required for people working with benzene. The highest concentrations were found in the Manchester area of Houston, a neighborhood composed of 98% people of color, primarily Black and Hispanic residents.

Chemicals require specialized storage and transportation equipment to ensure they are safe and secure through their entire life cycle. Releases during storage can happen when infrastructure fails, when containment systems are not appropriately maintained or when mistakes or deliberate omissions occur during procedures. Transportation accidents such as train derailments or motor vehicle collisions can often cause an emergency when transportation containers are breached during the incident.

Key Facts

  • Chemical emergencies are often more deadly and affect more people than other types of disasters. Because many chemicals are usually stored or transported as liquids or gases, their release can be much more severe than the release of something stored as a solid. For example, in 2016, a truck carrying 63 drums of yellowcake uranium rolled over in Saskatchewan, Canada. The contamination from this incident was minor and localized because it was a solid substance that did not spread very far. In comparison, when the 2011 tsunami hit the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor, its radiation spread across the Pacific Ocean because it was released in both gas and liquid forms.
  • Many of the “worst” disasters in history are the result of chemical releases. Because they can be so deadly and affect such a wide swath of people, animals and the environment, chemical releases are often high on the list of “worst” disasters. The Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon oil spills are examples of large-scale chemical releases during extraction and transportation. In 2020, an inappropriately maintained storage container at a facility on the outskirts of Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, India released a cloud of styrene vapor across a 1.9 mile (3 kilometers) region, ultimately killing 11 and injuring more than 1,000 people. When the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India released a chemical catalyst used in manufacturing pesticides in 1984, as many as 16,000 died and more than 500,000 people were injured.
  • Racial and economic inequity is a significant indicator of risk from a chemical emergency. Many neighborhoods and communities at the highest risk of experiencing a chemical release are historically racially segregated or home to people living in poverty. When chemical manufacturing plants moved into the area around Reserve, Louisiana, the community quickly shifted from a majority-white to a majority-Black community. Reserve is now part of Chemical Alley, which is disproportionately Black and poor. The same is true of major transportation corridors. Communities living along major rail corridors or roadways are often composed of Black and/or impoverished communities. According to the NAACP, race is the leading indicator for the placement of toxic facilities in the United States.
  • Governments are often left to clean up chemical releases when the companies who create them abdicate their responsibilities. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for cleaning up 40,000 contaminated sites – known as Superfund sites – across the U.S., including more than 1,300 deemed to be a priority based on their risk to human and environmental health. Although every attempt is made to have the company responsible for the chemical release pay, approximately 30% of these sites – often the most heavily contaminated – are funded solely by the U.S. government through taxes.

How to Help

  • Support affordable housing in neighborhoods away from industrial areas. Many communities in and around industrial areas with a high risk of chemical release are disproportionately impoverished and racialized compared to other neighborhoods. Increasing the availability of new affordable housing in safe locations will allow people to move into lower-risk areas.
  • Help fund preparedness efforts and resilient infrastructure in areas at risk of a chemical release. A chemical release can happen at any time and without any warning. People need to be prepared in the event of an evacuation or shelter-in-place warning. This includes having access to running water, electricity, communications and internet if they need to shelter in place for an extended period. In the event of an evacuation, there may be little or no warning, so people need to be prepared for an extended absence away from home at a moment’s notice.
  • Fund research into safer modes of transportation and storage. The impacts of a chemical emergency are so significant that it is more cost-effective to prevent a chemical release from ever happening. Research that focuses on safe ways of transporting and storing chemicals will reduce the risk of a disaster ever happening, making more money and resources available for other emergencies and disasters.
  • Oppose gerrymandering and support the development of independent electoral boundary bodies. Gerrymandering is extremely common, particularly in ways that benefit wealthy white elected representatives. As a result, many electoral divisions, such as Houston’s Manchester neighborhood, are unequally represented because their boundaries are drawn according to the chances of re-election and not based on demographics or even geography. Areas that are badly in need of representation often have their voices drowned out by the voices of people who have little in common with those who suffer the most from a chemical release.

What Funders Are Doing

  • The Annenberg Foundation donated $25,000 in 2017 to Healthy Gulf to monitor the coastal waters of Louisiana and Texas to document oil and chemical spills and hold industry accountable for the impacts of those spills.
  • After the 2013 train derailment, chemical release and explosion in Lac Mégantique, Quebec, donors from around the world, including a $47,000 donation from the Lions Club, helped re-open the local library with donations equaling more than 200,000 books and other media.
  • In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon spill, the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors gave $4 million to the Gulf Coast Community Foundation for community aid in 2011.
  • In 2011, the Global Greengrants Fund gave a $3,000 grant to Other Media to help survivors of the Bhopal disaster plan strategic actions to seek justice, rehabilitation and remediation and prevent further contamination of drinking water. Funds monitored the quality of the drinking water delivered to Bhopal survivors, supported environmental youth groups, enabled networking with other affected communities and media coordination.

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(Photo: Soldiers participating in the toxic industrial chemical protection and detection equipment training at Fort Hood, Texas. Source: US Army under CC BY 2.0)