Catastrophic Chemistry Chemical Sector – Environmental Disasters and Toxic-Terrorism


By Mr. Frank G. Rando, Co-Owner of Teach 2 Prepare, USA

On a dark December night in 1984, while most of the one million residents of Bhopal, the capital city of the Madhya Pradesh state in India, were in their slumber, a nightmare was unfolding that would haunt the city’s inhabitants for decades.

During this fateful event, more than 40 tons of the lung-damaging, irritant gases methyl isocyanate (MIC) as well as phosgene, were released into the atmosphere due to a lethal combination of critical technological failures, errant human factors, gross mismanagement, corporate greed, antiquated equipment, poor emergency planning substandard safety policies and procedures, poverty and environmental injustice prevailed in Bhopal, and acted synergistically to cause a ‘chemical Chernobyl’.

The catastrophic failures at the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL)  “Sevin” carbaryl pesticide manufacturing facility is the worst industrial chemical manufacturing disaster in history, and a toxic legacy that remains in the contaminated soils and groundwater aquifer of this impoverished and suffering city. The name “Bhopal” would soon be synonymous with “industrial disaster”, and the event cited as a classic case study in the academic halls and annals of environmental health, safety, disaster preparedness and emergency response.

In addition, the lessons learned would serve as a clarion call and a catalyst for urgent and drastic changes in environmental policy-making, global industrial safety and corporate responsibility. Authorities have estimated at least 3,000-10,000 immediate deaths, and well over 500,000 cases of increased mortality and morbidity within the Bhopal community.

At approximately 11:00 p.m. on 2nd of December 1984, a technician/plant operator observed a leak of MIC and a pressure increase within a storage vessel.

Among the installed safety countermeasures, a vent -gas scrubber which utilized sodium hydroxide (lye) to neutralize any toxic emission from the MIC unit had been disabled three weeks earlier.

In addition, a large refrigeration unit that served to cool the MIC tank was drained of its coolant and used in another portion of the facility. The gas flare safety system was inoperative and needed repair, and the plant’s water curtain system that would have been activated to knock down the vapors and assist in preventing the egress of toxic gases beyond plant boundaries also failed.

A faulty valve had allowed water incursion into a MIC storage vessel leading to an aggressive exothermic reaction and the ominous and continuous increases in heat and pressure.

Essentially, and ultimately, the MIC unit and its contents fell prey to the hard and fast principles of chemistry and physics, as a relief valve opened; allowing a plume of toxic gases and aerosols into the night air. Some reports eluded to the inclusion of phosgene being released, as well as the possibility that hydrogen cyanide may either have formed or a cyanogenic compound was a component of the MIC itself.

The cyanide theory was postulated after a physician who administered sodium thiosulfate (a drug used to treat cyanide toxicity), to exposed individuals demonstrated that this patient cohort showed clinical improvement. The physician was thrown out of India, which led many to believe that cyanide was involved and that a corporate cover-up was underway.

The plant’s warning siren sounded but was immediately silenced, as it was thought best not to panic the unsuspecting, and mainly slumbering public.

As the shroud of chemical death impinged the residents, searing their eyes, mucous membranes and respiratory systems, approximately 3,800 died immediately, mainly within the perimeter of the slum colony which was overshadowed by the pipes and industrial stack of the incapacitated facility.

Because of poor or non-existent emergency planning at all levels, there were no pre-existing community emergency operations plans, and very soon local hospitals were facing an external disaster and mass casualty event involving toxic industrial chemicals (TICs).

In addition, hundreds of animals and plants were decimated due to the plume’s deadly chemical wrath and Bhopal’s environment contaminated with leaking chemical wastes from the destroyed and now rusted and deteriorated plant infrastructure.

While fixed chemical manufacturing, storage and disposal sites, including uncontrolled and abandoned hazardous waste sites, pose serious environmental, safety, public health and security challenges, transportation incidents involving hazardous materials are also of grave concern. A classic example involves the transportation mishap which involved a train carrying three tanker cars of liquid chlorine under pressure.

At approximately 2:40 p.m. on the 6th of January 2005, in Graniteville, South Carolina, USA, the train was inadvertently switched onto an industrial spur, where it crashed into a parked locomotive. The train derailed and a chlorine tanker was breached, releasing approximately 46 tons of chlorine immediately followed by an additional 14 tons over the next three days until HAZMAT technicians could patch the breach.

The release created an environmental and public health emergency and activated a multi-agency emergency response, including local health department and federal  public health assets that conducted rapid health assessments on exposed individuals.

The rapid health investigation revealed significant morbidity and mortality associated with acute chlorine gas inhalation. Among the victims there were nine fatalities, including fifty-one severe medical outcomes.

Chlorine is a ubiquitous substance used in commerce and industrial operations such as paper production, water disinfection/treatment, textile industry and other industries.

Substantial populations of chlorine exposed patients as a result of train derailments, have been reported in various states, and awareness of its use as a chemical warfare agent, as recently as the last  past years in Iraq and Syria, have been documented and publicized.

In the Northeast industrial corridor, which has been dubbed “the most dangerous two-miles in the U.S.” by the U.S. Attorney General’s office, looms the largest chlorine manufacturing facility in the U.S. in the city of Kearney, New Jersey. The U.S. Army conducted a vulnerability assessment which estimated that a catastrophic release could result in over two million casualties.

While accidental releases of hazardous chemicals from fixed and mobile sources are much more common than sabotage or terrorism on chemical sector critical infrastructure ,sabotage and terrorism are extremely plausible, and the plethora of toxic, flammable  and reactive chemicals and materials stored, manufactured and transported in commerce and industry make many hazardous substances and materials potential weaponized agents (Weapons of Opportunity and Convenience or  Weapons of Mass Effect).

Potential weaponized hazardous materials include:

  1. Inorganic chemicals eg. chlorine, ammonia, hydrogen fluoride (HF) -a highly corrosive and a “toxic caustic“ (acid) which can cause electrolyte imbalance /calcium depletion. Sulfuric acid, nitric acid and sodium hydroxide ( lye) are powerful corrosives and can induce severe chemical burns.
  2. Industrial gases that are toxic include carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide, phosgene and arsine. Nitrogen and argon are simple asphyxiants that displace ambient oxygen and compressed oxygen supports combustion, while hydrogen, liquefied petroleum gas and propane are highly flammable and can be used as weaponized incendiary agents to generate mass burn casualties, create exothermic reactions, induce extensive fire and blast damage to vital chemical sector infrastructure and surrounding communities.
  3. Most petrochemical and fossil fuel products, intermediates, and by-products, eg. diesel fuel, jet fuel and gasoline are flammable and can also be utilized as improvised incendiary weapons and exert catastrophic damage and mass burn trauma. Petroleum and petroleum-based products, including distillates, are the most commonly released hazardous materials due to transportation mishaps.

Due to physiochemical characteristics, many hazardous materials may generate multiple hazards upon release to the environment, eg. reactive and toxic, flammable and toxic, etc. Materials may interact with other substances and materials and release toxic gases, explode or burst into flames.

In addition, hazardous materials may react with environmental and meteorological conditions causing not just environmental contamination and degradation, but generate secondary hazards, eg. rainwater incursion into reaction vessels leading to exothermic reactions or contaminated runoff entering a municipal water supply system.

Wind direction and speed, topography, soil types, vegetation, hydrogeological characteristics, ambient temperature, precipitation, atmospheric stability, environmental persistence/bioaccumulative potential  of released substances,  time of day, community preparedness/response assets  and other factors are extremely important determinants in the behavior, predictability, impact and overall incident management  of a major chemical incident /hazardous materials emergency.

Homeland Security Presidential Directive (HSPD-7) establishes a national policy for Federal departments to identify and prioritize the critical infrastructure and key resources ( CIKR) of the United States, and to protect them from terrorist attacks.

Based on HSPD-7, the following impacts are relevant when discussing the chemical sector:

  • Impact on life, health and safety
  • Impact on government function
  • Impact on the economy and/or private sector

Immediate life safety actions, such as sheltering in place vs. evacuation, moving uphill, upwind, or upstream,  maintaining adequate distances from incident site, donning appropriate personal protective equipment, emergency extrication and rapid rescue, gross decontamination and emergency medical care must be initiated with emergency notifications to proper emergency services.

The Incident Command System (ICS) must be established with first arriving person assuming immediate command, and performing an initial assessment and on-going  scene size up. This function can be relinquished upon the arrival of senior and more experienced personnel.

Fire suppression efforts may be limited to allowing a chemical fire to self extinguish and providing a cooling water stream ( providing that released substances are not water reactive) to overheated and strained storage tanks, reaction vessels and other containers to help to mitigate the possibility of a Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion or BLEVE.

Depending upon numerous factors, fire suppression  strategy and tactics may include the use of foam extinguishing systems as well.

In a terrorism scenario, the major chemical incident becomes an active crime scene, and in the acute response phase, care and specialized resources may need to be deployed to deal with active shooter and secondary device threats.

Initial and ongoing environmental sampling and monitoring will be required of the response site and off-site and risk and hazard assessments will be ongoing and reported to the Incident Commander and shared with relevant stakeholders.

Emergency medical and public health response will deal with triage, treatment and transport of exposed and chemically contaminated victims, medical facility surge capacity and capabilities, human exposure and toxicology assessments, patient decontamination, fatality management operations in cooperation with medicolegal investigation and medical examiner assets, decontamination and final disposition of corpses. Corpses recovered in a chemical sector terrorism event will also be subject to forensic examination prior to the final disposition of remains.

Accurate information and rumor control must be provided to avoid the deleterious effects of making assumptions and exaggeration of the facts.

Mass care needs of displaced and evacuated community members must be coordinated with NGOs such as the American Red Cross and Salvation Army Disaster Services. Psychological support services need to be in place and readily accessible to responders and the affected community.

Major chemical incidents are complex and dynamic emergencies which require extensive community wide pre-planning and preparedness efforts to assure safe and comprehensive responses and resolution. The elements of criminality and terrorism add a unique perspective and dimension to a complex problem which must be addressed in the prevention, planning and preparedness phases of the emergency management cycle.

The health, safety, security, environmental and economic impacts of a major chemical incident can be catastrophic and an “all hands“ integrated emergency management approach is necessary.

Moreover, morally, ethically and otherwise we cannot compromise the health, safety and wellbeing of the communities that exist in the shadow of an impending chemical disaster.

About the Author

Mr. Rando has over 30 years of experience in public safety emergency services, including law enforcement, criminal investigations, high- risk tactical entry, tactical medicine, technical and heavy rescue and as a hazardous materials CBRNE specialist, paramedic and flight medic. He is a Surgical First Assistant, Respiratory Therapist, Emergency Medical Technician, environmental health scientist, consultant, instructor, educator, author  and co-owner of Teach 2 Prepare and an SME/NAEMT Certified Instructor for Integrated Community Solutions to Active Violence Events ( He has served as a Counterterrorism /Homeland Security SME and instructor for several US Department of Homeland Security and Department of Defense projects and programs.

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