Chemical Emergencies

Photo of a scientist holding a flask with a chemical in it

A chemical emergency occurs when a hazardous chemical has been released and the release has the potential for harming people's health. Chemical releases can be unintentional, as in the case of an industrial accident, or intentional, as in the case of a terrorist attack.

Some kinds of chemical accidents or attacks may make going outdoors dangerous. Leaving the area might take too long or put you in harm’s way. In such a case it may be safer for you to stay indoors than to go outside.

Act quickly and follow the instructions of your local emergency coordinators such as law enforcement personnel, fire departments, or local elected leaders. Every situation can be different, so local emergency coordinators might have special instructions for you to follow.

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Basic Preparedness

Some kinds of chemical accidents or attacks may make going outdoors dangerous. Leaving the area might take too long or put you in harm’s way. In such a case it may be safer for you to stay indoors than to go outside.

  • Prepare yourself and your family by creating an Emergency Supply Kit and a Family Disaster Plan. See NJOEM's Basic Preparedness page for more details.
    • Your Kit includes items that will help you stay self-sufficient for up to three days, if needed. Also include:
      • A roll of duct tape and scissors.
      • Plastic sheeting (2-4 mil. thick) and towels for doors, windows, and vents for the room in which you will shelter in place. To save critical time during an emergency, pre-measure and cut the plastic sheeting for each opening. Cut the plastic sheeting several inches wider than the openings and label each sheet. Download NJOEM's Shelter in Place Guidelines for chemical emergencies [pdf]
    • Your Plan includes evacuation plans, a place to reunite with loved ones, and an out-of-state contact person.
      • The best room to use for the shelter is a room with as few windows and doors as possible. A large room with a water supply is best—something like a master bedroom that is connected to a bathroom. For most chemical events, this room should be as high in the structure as possible to avoid vapors (gases) that sink. This guideline is different from the sheltering-in-place technique used in tornadoes and other severe weather and for nuclear or radiological events, when the shelter should be low in the home.

Act quickly and follow the instructions of your local emergency coordinators such as law enforcement personnel, fire departments, or local elected leaders. Every situation can be different, so local emergency coordinators might have special instructions for you to follow. In general, do the following:

  • Go inside as quickly as possible. Bring any outdoor pets indoors.
  • If there is time, shut and lock all outside doors and windows. Locking them may pull the door or window tighter and make a better seal against the chemical. Turn off the air conditioner or heater. Turn off all fans, too. Close the fireplace damper and any other place that air can come in from outside.
  • Take your emergency supply kit unless you have reason to believe it has been contaminated.
  • Go into an interior room with few windows, if possible.
  • Seal all windows, doors and air vents with 2-4 mil. thick plastic sheeting with duct tape. Consider measuring and cuting the sheeting in advance to save time.
  • Cut the plastic sheeting several inches wider than the openings.
  • Duct tape plastic at corners and then tape down all edges.
  • Be prepared to improvise and use what you have on hand to seal gaps so that you create a barrier between yourself and any contamination.
  • Turn on the radio. Keep a telephone close at hand, but don’t use it unless there is a serious emergency.
  • Sink and toilet drain traps should have water in them (you can use the sink and toilet as you normally would). If it is necessary to drink water, drink stored water, not water from the tap.
  • If you are away from your shelter-in-place location when a chemical event occurs, follow the instructions of emergency coordinators to find the nearest shelter. If your children are at school, they will be sheltered there. Unless you are instructed to do so, do not try to get to the school to bring your children home. Transporting them from the school will put them, and you, at increased risk.
  • Listen to the radio for an announcement indicating that it is safe to leave the shelter.
  • When you leave the shelter, follow instructions from local emergency coordinators to avoid any contaminants outside. After you come out of the shelter, emergency coordinators may have additional instructions on how to make the rest of the building safe again.

Decontamination is needed within minutes of exposure to minimize health consequences. Do not leave the safety of a shelter to go outdoors to help others until authorities announce it is safe to do so.

A person affected by a chemical agent requires immediate medical attention from a professional. If medical help is not immediately available, decontaminate yourself and assist in decontaminating others.

Decontamination guidelines are as follows:

  • Use extreme caution when helping others who have been exposed to chemical agents.
  • Remove all clothing and other items in contact with the body. Contaminated clothing normally removed over the head should be cut off to avoid contact with the eyes, nose and mouth. Put contaminated clothing and items into a plastic bag and seal it. Decontaminate hands using soap and water. Remove eyeglasses or contact lenses. Put glasses in a pan of household bleach to decontaminate them and then rinse and dry.
  • Flush eyes with water.
  • Gently wash face and hair with soap and water before thoroughly rinsing with water.
  • Decontaminate other body areas likely to have been contaminated. Blot (do not swab or scrape) with a cloth soaked in soapy water and rinse with clear water.
  • Change into uncontaminated clothes. Clothing stored in drawers or closets is likely to be uncontaminated.
  • Proceed to a medical facility for screening and professional treatment.

The following resources may be helpful.