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Chemical/Radiological Preparedness

Chemical Emergencies Frequently Asked Questions

Chemicals play an important role in our everyday lives. They are found in a wide range of household and commercial products. Some can be lifesaving; some can be hazardous to our health. People may be exposed to harmful chemicals through accidents, intentional acts, or even the use of chemicals as weapons. Chemical events can have serious implications for human health and the environment. Preparing for and responding to chemical emergencies and chemical terrorism are important functions of public health.

What is a chemical emergency?

A chemical emergency is when a hazardous chemical is released, either accidentally or intentionally, and has the potential for harming people's health.

Where do hazardous chemicals come from?

Many hazardous chemicals are used in industry (for example, chlorine, ammonia, and benzene). Others are found in nature (for example, poisonous plants). Household chemicals such as cleaners and solvents can also be hazardous by themselves or in combination with other substances. Some chemicals that are hazardous have been developed by military organizations for use in warfare.

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What kinds of hazardous chemicals are there?

Scientists often categorize hazardous chemicals by the type of chemical or by the effects a chemical would have on people exposed to it. The categories, or types, used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are as follows:

  • Biotoxins - poisons that come from plants or animals
  • Blister agents/vesicants — chemicals that severely blister the eyes, respiratory tract, and skin on contact
  • Blood agents - poisons that affect the body by being absorbed into the blood
  • Caustics (acids) - chemicals that burn or corrode people's skin, eyes, and mucus membranes (lining of the nose, mouth, throat, and lungs) on contact
  • Choking/lung/pulmonary agents - chemicals that cause severe irritation or swelling of the respiratory tract (lining of the nose and throat, lungs)
  • Incapacitating agents - drugs that make people unable to think clearly or that cause an altered state of consciousness (possibly unconsciousness)
  • Long-acting anticoagulants - poisons that prevent blood from clotting properly, which can lead to uncontrolled bleeding
  • Metals - agents that consist of metallic poisons
  • Nerve agents - highly poisonous chemicals that work by preventing the nervous system from working properly
  • Organic solvents - agents that damage the tissues of living things by dissolving fats and oils
  • Riot control agents/tear gas - highly irritating agents normally used by law enforcement for crowd control or by individuals for protection (for example, mace)
  • Toxic alcohols - poisonous alcohols that can damage the heart, kidneys, and nervous system
  • Vomiting agents - chemicals that cause nausea and vomiting

If you know the name of a chemical but aren't sure what category it would be in, you can look for the chemical by name on the CDC's A–Z List of Chemical Agents. External link

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What are the signs of a chemical release?

Harmful chemical exposures are usually characterized by the rapid onset of medical symptoms (minutes to hours) and easily observed signs.

In humans, look for: In the environment, look for:
Unusual numbers of sick people or deaths (mass casualties). Health problems can include nausea, disorientation, difficulty breathing, sweating, skin and eye irritation, convulsions and cardiac arrest. Unusual numbers of sick or dead animals, birds, or fish. Near water, check for but do not touch dead fish, birds or other aquatic life.
Blisters/rashes - Numerous individuals will experience unexplained water-like blisters, welts (hives), and/or rashes. Lack of insect life - Normal insect activity (ground, air, and/or water) is missing. Unusual numbers of dead insects are found on the ground/water surface/shore line.
Pattern of victims - Outdoors, the injured or dead are likely to be distributed downwind from the release. Indoors, air ventilation systems will distribute chemicals, resulting in injuries throughout a facility. Unexplained odors - Smells may range from fruity to flowery to sharp/pungent to garlic/horseradish-like to bitter almonds/peach kernels to new-mown hay. Note: The odor is completely out of character with its surroundings. Some odors may not be noticeable to the entire population.
Illness in a localized area - More people than normal will be ill, either indoors or outdoors, depending where the agent was released. Different looking areas, unusual metal debris, liquid droplets, abandoned spray devices, low-flying clouds - Be aware of trees, shrubs, bushes, food crops, and/or lawns that are dead, discolored, or withered; brown, yellow, amber, greenish-yellow or colorless liquid spills; unexplained bomb-like material; oily droplets/film; fog-like conditions not consistent with their surroundings. Do not touch these areas/devices.

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What are the health effects from a chemical exposure?

Exposures to hazardous chemicals can cause a wide range of adverse health effects depending on the nature of the chemicals used, a person's exposure (breathing, eating, or through skin absorption), and a number of other factors. Both short- and long-term health effects are possible from chemical exposures.

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Some important points to remember about hazardous chemicals

  • The fading of a chemical odor does not necessarily indicate a reduced amount of the chemical in the area — your sense of smell may have become dulled to the odor.
  • Signs and symptoms depend on the amount and type of chemical exposure and the duration of exposure.
  • Children, pregnant women, the immune-compromised, the elderly and animals may experience adverse health effects more quickly and at lower exposure levels than healthy adults.

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Are any chemicals of particular concern because of terrorism?

Chemical terrorism is the intentional use of chemicals as weapons for the purpose of causing significant social and economic disruption as well as damage to human health and to the environment. Certain chemicals are of particular concern because they are extremely toxic. Some have been used in warfare (including mustard gas in World War I), and others are toxic materials widely used in industry. Many countries have signed treaties agreeing to disband their stockpiles of chemical weapons. However, terrorists may still have access to these chemicals and/or the technology to make them.

Major classes of chemical terrorism agents and their health effects
Agent Description First Symptoms First Actions Medical Response
Blister Agents

(e.g., mustard gas, lewisite)
Group of agents that cause blistering or burns on the skin or lungs. Could be transmitted by inhaling, or contact with skin or eyes. Skin and eye burning, severe respiratory irritation. Leave the affected area. Immediately remove clothing, place in a plastic bag, and shower or wash. Seek medical care if exposed. Mustard gas: treatment for blisters as burns, supportive care.

Lewisite: same; antidote.
Blood Agents

(e.g., cyanide, arsine)
Group of agents depriving cells and tissues of oxygen. Could be released in air, water or food. Rapid breathing, nausea, convulsions, loss of consciousness. Same as for blister agents. Cyanide: antidote.

Arsine: supportive care; blood transfusions and intravenous fluids may be needed.
Choking Agents

(e.g., chlorine, phosgene)
Group of agents attacking the respiratory system. Most likely to be released in air. Coughing, burning eyes or throat, blurred vision, nausea, fluid in lungs, difficulty breathing. Same as for blister agents. Monitoring for delayed symptoms. Supportive care. Oxygen as needed.
Nerve Agents

(e.g., sarin, soman, tabun, VX)
Group of agents that affect the nervous system. Released in air, water or food. Seizures, drooling, eye irritation, sweating or twitching, blurred vision, muscle weakness. Same as for blister agents. Antidote; supportive care (e.g., oxygen as needed).

Note: This chart provides the basic information when an agent is known.

Source: Terrorism & Other Public Health Emergencies; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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What systems are in place to respond to chemical incidents?

North Carolina has emergency response resources at state and local levels. The Division of Emergency Management, Department of Public Safety, is North Carolina's coordinating agency for emergency preparedness and response, including HAZMAT teams. The Hazardous Materials section coordinates with local emergency planners and responders to prevent and respond to hazardous material incidents.

Every county has an emergency response plan and a system for contacting emergency responders. First responders include specially trained hazardous materials (HAZMAT) teams, firefighters, police, and emergency medical technicians (EMTs). They control access to the affected area, try to prevent the spread of contaminants, find and treat the injured, and collect criminal evidence. First responders are trained to recognize chemical hazards and use appropriate protective equipment, including respiratory protection devices and protective clothing.

While generally public health staff are not "first responders," the Public Health Preparedness and Response Branch is notified early on and immediately begins working with the local health department to ensure essential medical services. Trained staff in Occupational and Environmental Health assess short- and long-term impacts of the event on human health, food, water, and sanitation, and order actions to protect the public from chemical contamination.

Public health staff may also interview victims or provide backup to first responders and medical staff. State and federal public health agencies become involved if the event is larger than can be handled with local resources.

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How can I prepare for chemical emergencies?

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What should I do if a chemical incident occurs?

Remember to stay calm! Your first priority is your safety and the safety of those around you.

  • In case of a home emergency
    • If potential of fire or explosion exists, get out of the house immediately.
    • Minimize exposure time between you and the chemical.
    • Call 9-1-1 and/or the Carolinas Poison Center, 1-800-222-1222.
    • If possible, have chemical containers available to provide details about the chemical(s).
    • If a chemical has come in contact with the eyes, flush eyes with clean water for 10-15 minutes or as directed (follow the label directions).
    • If chemical is inhaled, move to fresh air immediately.
    • In case of chemical contact with skin or clothing and help is not available, decontaminate yourself:
      • Remove all clothing and other items in contact with your body. Cut clothing off — do not pull over your head.
      • Gently wash exposed parts of your body with soapy water and rinse thoroughly.
      • Change into clean clothing that has not been exposed to the contamination.
      • Carefully place removed clothing in a bag and seal tightly to prevent chemical vapors from escaping. Put the bag inside of another bag, seal tightly and place in an area unlikely to cause further human or animal exposure. Ask professionals for disposal instructions.
  • In a major chemical emergency
    • Listen to the radio or television for instructions from emergency response authorities. The Emergency Alert System may be activated. If so, you will be given instructions on what to do.
    • Follow the instructions from the authorities. Your life may depend on it!
    • Remain upwind, uphill and upstream of the chemical release.
    • If you are the first to discover the scene of a chemical release, call 9-1-1 immediately! If possible, provide the following information:
      • Telephone number for call-backs at the scene.
      • Local officials that have been notified of the incident, such as fire, police.
      • Specific date, time and exact location of the incident.
      • Materials and quantity involved in the incident, if known.
      • Responsible party, if known.
      • What kind of assistance is requested.
      • What has happened or what is happening.

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Protecting yourself if chemical agent is not known

You can protect yourself during a chemical emergency, even if you don't immediately know what chemical was released. For general information on protecting yourself, on evacuation, sheltering in place, personal cleaning, and disposal of contaminated clothing, see Preparation and Planning for Chemical Emergencies External link on the CDC website.

Who should you call if a chemical incident occurs?

Incident Type Agency Phone
Poisoning Carolinas Poison Center 1-800-222-1222
Chemical Release Local Fire Department

Local Health Department

Find at
Actual or Threatened Chemical Terrorist Event Local Law Enforcement (24/7)

N.C. Division of Public Health (24/7)

Environmental Emergency (chemical spill/release) N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (24/7) National Response Center
Pesticide Emergency (spill/release/fire) N.C. Division of Emergency Management 800-858-0368 or

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For additional information on chemical emergencies

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