19 February 2003
Chemical plant safety in U.S. better, but still needs more work
While the number of chemical incidents is falling, work still remains to eliminate them, according to a new report on chemical safety in the U.S.
Fewer than half the people in the U.S. are aware of chemical plants in their communities, and even fewer are aware of any chemical accidents occurring in their communities during the previous five years, according to a study by the Texas Engineering Experiment Station's Mary Kay O'Connor Process Safety Center. A majority of those surveyed said they had not received any information telling them what to do to protect themselves in case of a chemical accident in their community.
Put together over a two-year period, the report examined public awareness of chemical spills and safety, ways of measuring chemical safety, and the usefulness of how the federal government compiles and maintains records on incidents involving the release of harmful chemicals.
Dr. Sam Mannan, director of the Mary Kay O'Connor Process Safety Center, said while the chemical industry has a tremendous impact on the national economy, until now no one has ever done a national assessment of where the industry is, where it needs to go, and what improvements are needed in terms of chemical safety.
"It's amazing in this country how we track anything to do with financial resources," said Mannan, who is also a professor in Texas A&M University's Department of Chemical Engineering. "We can tell you to the decimal point how good or bad the stock market is doing. We don't do that for chemical safety."
The report found that the chemical industry still has a lot of work to do in some areas, especially in terms of keeping its communities informed about what's going on. While people surveyed in the study felt their community could respond well to a chemical accident, they still believed their families would be in danger.
"We need to have a better informed public, where the public trusts the information coming out of the chemical industry, so people are better able to deal with emergencies such as chemical incidents," Mannan said. "Public trust is essential for improved safety."
The number of chemical spills in the U.S. and the number of injuries and fatalities from these spills do appear to be declining, he said. However, no one can say this for sure because officials do not use this information to track or look at trends.
"In order to understand what's going on, we have to continue to chart progress," he said. "We need to be able to do these reports on an annual basis." Among the report's other findings are the following:
The Top 5 most released chemicals in the U.S. from 1994 to 1999 are ammonia, chlorine, hydrogen, propane, and formaldehyde.
Federal agencies need to ensure that chemical incidents companies must report do get reported.
Agencies need to make databases on chemical incidents fully searchable and accessible by the public.
Industry, government, and public interest groups must determine how to define "chemical safety."
The mission of the Mary Kay O'Connor Process Safety Center is to improve safety in the chemical process industry.
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