8 January 2009
Four years later, chlorine gas disaster yields new insights
The after effects of a chlorine gas disaster in a South Carolina town four years ago gives larger metropolitan areas awareness into what to expect and how to prepare emergency response systems for any kind of release of the potentially deadly gas, according to a new study.
In January 2005, a freight train carrying three tanker cars, each loaded with 90 tons of chlorine, collided with a parked locomotive in the center of Graniteville, S.C., a 7,000-person town 15 miles from Augusta, Ga. The 2 a.m. train collision ruptured one tank, releasing between 42 and 60 tons of chlorine gas that infiltrated a large textile mill, where 180 people were working the overnight shift.
When the accident occurred, eight people died at the scene. At least 525 people needed treatment in emergency rooms, with 71 hospitalized at nine hospitals in South Carolina and Georgia.
Chlorine gas is an irritating, fast-acting, and potentially deadly inhalant. It is also one of the most universal toxic chemicals, widely used in water treatment and industrial manufacturing. Much of the 13 million to 14 million tons produced in the U.S. each year gets moved around by rail, often through densely populated areas.
New federal regulations on the transport of rail cargo seek to prevent a similar disaster in a major metropolitan area. In addition, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has identified a deliberate attack on a chlorine storage tank as a top concern. According to agency estimates, as many as 100,000 people would require hospitalization, and 10,000 would die if someone attacked a chlorine storage tank in an urban area. In 2007, terrorists used chlorine gas in at least seven attacks on U.S. troops.
While small accidental and occupational exposures to chlorine gas occur regularly, the South Carolina disaster was one of the largest community exposures in modern history. As a result, CDC and South Carolina DHEC scientists sought to learn as much as possible about the health effects from this widespread chlorine gas exposure.
“This is one of the largest community exposures to chlorine gas since World War I,” said David Van Sickle, Ph.D., a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholar at the University of Wisconsin and lead author of the report. “It was a tragic disaster that shows us what a significant challenge a large-scale chlorine gas release poses to health care facilities.”
Van Sickle added hospitals need to be able to quickly recognize the signs of chlorine exposure and have a plan to provide a sufficient number of mechanical ventilators in the event of another massive chlorine disaster.
Van Sickle was part of a team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control that investigated the resulting health effects.
“We also wanted to understand how physicians treated the patients, how quickly they recovered, and what resources hospitals would need to respond effectively in the future,” Van Sickle said.
For related information, go to www.isa.org/safety.