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Information for the Public

What is a chemical emergency?

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.

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Where do hazardous chemicals come from?

Hazardous chemicals have many sources. Many are used in industry (for example, chlorine, ammonia, and benzene). Others are found in nature (for example, poisonous plants). Some could be made from everyday items such as household cleaners. These types of hazardous chemicals also could be obtained and used to harm people, or they could be accidentally released. Some hazardous chemicals have been developed by military organizations for use in warfare. Examples are nerve agents such as sarin and VX, mustards such as sulfur mustards and nitrogen mustards, and choking agents such as phosgene. It might be possible for terrorists to get these chemical warfare agents and use them to harm people.

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Protecting yourself

You could protect yourself during a chemical emergency, even if you didn't know yet what chemical had been released. For general information on protecting yourself, read more about evacuation (HHS/CDC), sheltering in place (HHS/CDC), and personal cleaning and disposal of contaminated clothing (HHS/CDC).

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How to know if you need to evacuate

You will hear from the local police, emergency coordinators, or government on the radio and/or television emergency broadcast system if you need to evacuate.

If there is a "code red" or "severe" terror alert, you should pay attention to radio and/or television broadcasts so you will know right away if an evacuation order is made for your area.

Every emergency is different and during any emergency people may have to evacuate or to shelter in place (HHS/CDC) depending on where they live.

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What to do

Remain calm. Act quickly and follow the instructions of local emergency coordinators, such as law enforcement personnel, fire departments, or local elected leaders. Every situation can be different, so local coordinators could give you special instructions to follow for a particular situation.

Local emergency coordinators may direct people to evacuate homes or offices and go to an emergency shelter. If so, emergency coordinators will tell you how to get to the shelter. If you have children in school, they may be sheltered at the school. You should not try to get to the school if the children are being sheltered there. Transporting them from the school will put them, and you, at increased risk.

The emergency shelter will have most supplies that people need. The emergency coordinators will tell you which supplies to bring with you, but you may also want to prepare a portable supply kit. Be sure to bring any medications you are taking.

If you have time, call a friend or relative in another state to tell them where you are going and that you are safe. Local telephone lines may be jammed in an emergency, so you should plan ahead to have an out-of-state contact with whom to leave messages. If you do not have private transportation, make plans in advance of an emergency to identify people who can give you a ride.

Evacuating and sheltering in this way should keep you safer than if you stayed at home or at your workplace. You will most likely not be in the shelter for more than a few hours. Emergency coordinators will let you know when it is safe to leave the shelter and anything you may need to do to make sure it is safe to re-enter your home.

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How you can get more information about evacuation

You can contact one of the following:

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How you can get more information about chemical emergencies

For more information about chemical emergencies, you can visit the following websites:

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  1. Emergency Preparedness and Response (HHS/CDC)
  2. Toxicology Profiles for Chemical Agents (HHS/CDC)
  3. O'Leary M. (2004) The First 72 Hours: A Community Approach to Disaster Preparedness. Lincoln (Nebraska), iUniverse Press. Available online for a fee.

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