*Industrial Chemical Threats*
By: R-squared
06 April 2011

The chemical industry in the US is large and one of our greater economic strengths and source of exports, even today. There are literally thousands of industrial chemicals in use today, each with a potential for safety, health, and environmental hazards. However, to keep it in context, we are also surrounded by millions of chemical compounds in nature. Obviously, many of them are benign or pose little risk to us in our daily lives, but some are deadly. It is the same with "man-made" chemicals. Many do not represent a threat to us, but some do.

I am simplifying the information here greatly (I can't cover the millions of combinations, either) to try to make it more understandable; therefore specific risks for specific chemicals may not be included. The chemical industry can be broken down into major volume subdivisions by type: basic chemicals, petrochemicals, plastics, synthetic fibers, agri-chemicals, paints, detergents, etc.

Pharmaceuticals are sometimes listed with the chemical industry and sometimes separately.

I won't cover them in this article.

Basic chemicals include the building blocks of the industry like the mineral acids (sulfuric, nitric, hydrochloric, etc.), ammonia, chlorine, bases like sodium hydroxide and sodium bicarbonate, and salts like ammonium nitrate and sodium silicate.

Petrochemicals derive from oil and include the basic organics: hydrocarbons, alcohols, amines, esters, nitro- and sulfur compounds, etc.

Agri-chemicals include the fertilizer components (usually things like ammonium compounds for nitrogen, potash for potassium, phosphoric acid for phosphorus), other minor nutrients and pesticides. Plastics (polyethylene, polypropylene, polyvinyl chloride, polystyrene, etc.), and fibers (Nylon, rayon, polyesters) are also usually made from petroleum based organic chemicals.

Paints, coatings, varnishes, detergents and cleaning agents are all things that go into familiar consumer products.

There are a reported 15,000 chemical plants in the US, with 7,000 of those deemed at risk for a terrorist attack potentially causing mass casualties. Those plants will usually have one of more of the toxic chemicals in large quantities. Some efforts have been made to make them safer from attack, but the economics for the industry to do it themselves are not compelling and the government seems to be short of cash these days, also.

Chemicals also have to be transported to where they are refined, made into other products, packaged, and/or distributed. This includes over water (ships/barges), rail, trucks, and in some cases pipelines.

Other than seaports, I've found little information on protecting/hardening shipment of chemicals. Therefore, an attacker with knowledge of the location of the storage facilities or the routes of transport for a hazardous chemical could have relative easy access to try to create a hazardous release near a desired target.

Although the possible combinations of chemical threats seem to be endless, we can simplify the problem by looking at largest volume chemicals used and concentrating on those that are hazardous.

Acids and bases: These include the mineral acids HCl (hydrochloric), HNO3 (nitric), H2SO4 (sulfuric), H3PO4 (phosphoric), and chlorine Cl2. Bases include compounds like ammonia NH3, sodium and potassium ... hydroxides (NaOH & KOH). The terms base, caustic and alkalis have sometimes been used interchangeably, although they do not have exactly the same definition in all cases. All of these react vigorously with water (we are mostly water) and therefore the main risk is the chemical burning/destroying of your flesh. Many of them are shipped/stored in concentrated liquid form, but if released by accident or attack (the mineral bases like NaOH are normally a solid, so don't pose the same risk), they can become a gas cloud and travel farther downwind, expanding the hazard zone. Since they all combine readily with water, high humidity, bodies of water, and rain would lessen the risk/spread of a release.

Petrochemicals/Organics: Here I'm referring to the standard chemistry definition of Organic - chemicals composed mainly of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. This includes gas, diesel, other liquid fuels, solvents, greases, lubricants, waxes, etc. The main risks are fire and explosion for most organic chemicals. Many are low boiling liquids, so high temperature/heat will turn them into a gas, which increases the area at risk downwind. Much of the plastics and synthetic fibers are based on organic chemicals also. However, some of these chemicals also include other elements like nitrogen, sulfur, chlorine, and others. As a simple general rule, this can make them more toxic and/or carcinogenic to us than regular (only C, H &O) organics, and a greater fire risk (decompose into more toxic subcomponents and/or acidic compounds). I will mention vinyl chloride, since it is a large volume chemical. In addition to being reactive, flammable, releasing HCL and phosgene as it burns, it is also toxic and carcinogenic.

Agri-chemicals: Mostly pesticides and fertilizers. Pesticides include herbicides (kill/prevent weeds), fungicides (kill/prevent plant diseases), and insecticides (kill insects). Despite the negative press, the industry is heavily regulated and it is difficult and expensive to get a pesticide registered for use. Highly toxicity and/or high environmental hazards are usually regulatory death for a new pesticide. Our economic system is also a constant driver for safer, cheaper, more effective with fewer side effects pesticides, also. Herbicides (since we are not plants) and fungicides (since we are not disease organisms) are generally less toxic to humans. Some insecticides can be humanly toxic because the mechanisms they disrupt in the insect are similar to ones in humans, so it can have the same effect on a human who is exposed. However, most human deaths caused by pesticides while I was in the industry were deliberate suicides by people ingesting large amounts of the pesticide. Again, some of these compounds can release toxic/acidic sub-components in a fire. Fertilizers are mainly mineral compounds of potassium, phosphorus and nitrogen. Compounds like ammonium nitrate (NH4NO3) are oxidizers (as are some of the mineral acids), which can contribute to the fire/explosive risks with other compounds. An example was the 1947 ship fire near Houston that eventually caused the cargo of wax coated ammonium nitrate to explode, killing over 500 people.

So if you are near a plant, rail lines, truck routes, or waterway, and/or downwind from them, you have a potential risk.

The best defense is to avoid exposure to any release/cloud/fog/smoke, as it will be unlikely that you will get notified of "what" it is before you need to leave. If the Fire Department Hazmat training I just went through was typical, most emergency responders will have limited knowledge of what the chemical release is, its hazards, and what are the risks of exposure. We learned how far back to get from it, in essence. There are chemical response experts and they will get involved, but not necessarily fast enough to save you. So the safest thing is to do is get away from the release, if possible to do so safely.

If you can't, most response sites say to close all possible vents, windows, entryways, etc., seal with plastic if possible, and shelter in place.

You should be fine without an air supply for the time most events would last, is the theory. Here is where a FIAC with a filter should not be used with an unknown chemical release, as many chemicals will not be stopped by a HEPA type filter. You need special filters for different classes of chemicals for air purifying. My lab gas mask filters had combined ammonia, acids, organic and pesticide filters in one cartridge. Unless you have the appropriate filters inline with your FIAC, you could pump the chemical into your shelter with you.

If you do get exposed, limit your contact as much as you can. Decontaminate (usually stripping and flushing with lots of clean water) and get medical help as soon as possible.

Your eyes and respiratory systems are frequently the most vulnerable, so do anything you can do to protect them/limit exposure (goggles, masks, bags, towels, rain gear can be good for body protection).

Most chemical release events will not mean long-term evacuations, like a radioactive release could. Many chemicals will break down or disperse fairly quickly; others might require some cleanup like washing down the exteriors of homes and cars. If a chemical were persistent in the environment and toxic, then there would be longer-term problems.

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