How to Survive an Industrial Gas Leak
“Why do I need a gas mask? When was the last time a chemical weapons attack hit the United States?”
Here at MIRA Safety, we’ve previously discussed the prevalence of chemical weaponry before in our Top Ten Deadliest Chemical Weapons article. Although no one who’s in the know would think so, many believe that because they've never witnessed an overt chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear (CBRN) incident that there is no need for to own a gas mask for personal use.
What they fail to consider is that they could be in close proximity to large amounts of lethal chemicals on a daily basis and that they live in a world where accidents do happen. And such accidents can have far-reaching consequences. All it takes is one error in judgement by a plant worker or a systems malfunction for an accidental release of a poisonous cloud capable of traveling to local communities for miles.
In this article, we’ll be discussing several recent episodes of industrial gas leaks, how they occurred, their deadly consequences, and most importantly, how to prepare yourself should you be caught in the midst of one.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Chlorine Gas Accident in Aqaba, Jordan
Chemical Gas Leaks Are Not Rare Incidents
How to Assess Your Risk
What Can You Do to Keep Yourself Safe Against Industrial Accidents?
You Can Survive a Chemical Gas Leak
Chlorine Gas Accident in Aqaba, Jordan
In June 2022, a massive chlorine gas leak occurred at the Red Sea port of Aqaba, Jordan. As a large tank holding 25–30 tons of chlorine was being loaded onto a ship, the iron rope being used to hoist the container snapped.
The container dropped onto the ship's edge, where it burst open, engulfing the area in chlorine gas. Thirteen people were killed within a matter of hours. Another 260 people were listed as injured in the immediate aftermath, and 123 of them spent quite a bit of time in the hospital—many in critical condition.
Being a seaside town, Aqaba beach is very popular with tourists. It’s only 7 km from the port where the accident occured and had to be evacuated. The residents there were ordered to stay at home with their windows and doors closed.
As terrible as this accident was, things could have been much worse if the warning to those in the area hadn’t been issued in time. How might it have played out if the chlorine gas release was closer to the city? What if the people at the beach couldn’t evacuate quickly enough? Instead of “only” 13 fatalities, that number could have been significantly larger. Chlorine is no joke: It must be handled carefully. There’s a reason that chlorine gas was used to usher in the age of chemical weapons at the Battle of Ypres in World War I—it is very effective at killing people.
The Battle of Ypres
(Painting by William Barnes Wollen)
Imagine planning a day at the beach and then being told that a lethal chemical cloud is headed your way. What would you do? Would you be able to keep yourself and your family safe?
The reality is that these kinds of threats are all around us. That doesn’t mean you need to live a life filled with paranoia and fear; it’s simply reality. Some very serious chemical agents are used at public pools and in factories and are loaded and unloaded at docks in your area. Human error, gravity, fire, carelessness, and the second law of thermodynamics combined with these chemicals eventually causes accidents.
Chemical Gas Leaks Are Not Rare Incidents
This is something that many people refuse to understand. Well, they understand it, but they dismiss the realities of it. Most have the mindset “that could never happen here.”
Atchinson, Kansas October 2016
It was just another day at MGP Ingredients, a company that specializes in making distilled spirits. Then, at 8 am, an individual accidentally put the wrong chemical ingredient into a holding tank causing a poisonous gas cloud to be released, engulfing large parts of the city.
A shelter-in-place order was rapidly issued, forced evacuations took place, and 18 people had to be treated for respiratory issues. All because somebody accidentally used the wrong holding tank.
Consider putting yourself in the shoes of the local residents. Where are you typically at 8 am? Are you on your way to work? Are you even awake yet? Would you have had what you needed to receive an alert in time to take protective action?
Houston, Texas February 2014
If you spend enough time researching chemical spills, bad air, and the like, Houston will show up repeatedly.
It was here in 2014 that a tanker truck carrying anhydrous hydrogen chloride developed a leak after a container inside the truck ruptured. This chemical is highly corrosive and is typically used for metal pickling, industrial cleaning, and mining.
When humans are exposed to hydrogen chloride, it causes lung and eye damage. A shelter-in-place order was issued as the gas cloud emanated from the truck at 9 pm. Thankfully, no casualties were reported. Howeer it doesn’t take much imagination to realize that it could have been much worse.
Los Angeles, March 2022
On March 17, 2022, Huntsman Chemical, a chemical manufacturing company near Los Angeles accidentally released a cloud of the epoxy Reninfusion 8610. The chemical was being processed for transportation when a single, small valve broke, causing the release. Thankfully, there were no injuries.
This raises the question: In a city of 3.9 million people and 502 square miles, do you trust every valve involved with poisonous gas transportation in your vicinity to hold fast? In any major city, structures, utilities, and facilities can degrade over time especially with lax oversight. Given enough time to build pressure, larger disasters can burst at the seams.
Do all the valves work? You’d better hope so.
August 2021 – Eddyville, Iowa
As a faulty valve caused 8,520 gallons of hydrochloric acid to leak at a livestock supplement manufacturer, officials in the area not only issued a shelter-in-place order but also closed roads and highways in the area.
What would you do to get your family out of the path of a gas cloud if all the roads in your area were closed? Could you turn your vehicle around in time to get back to safety? Would the air inside your home remain safe to breathe? Would you have a backup plan?
The Dow Chemical Facility — April 18, 2022
When you play with fire, sometimes you get burned. In this case, a fire ended up causing a massive chlorine cloud to be released for 2 hours, and a shelter-in-place order was issued in the town of Plaquemine. 2 hours may seem like a short span of time but consider that it only takes chlorine concentrations of 400 parts per million (ppm) to be fatal in just 30 minutes. In greater quantities above 800 ppm, death occurs within a few minutes.
Artist portrayal of what a chlorine gas release looks like.
Gas Leaks in Water Parks
In July 2021, Houston once again made headlines for another accidental release of a poisonous gas cloud. This time, a Six Flags water park was ground zero. Thousands were forced to flee the area, and some feared that a terrorist attack had taken place.
Two common cleaning agents were accidentally combined, generating a chlorine gas cloud that filled the area. These chemicals are present throughout the country wherever there are man-made bodies of water. As a result of this accident, 31 people were sent to hospitals, and 50+ were decontaminated on site. All because two chemicals were accidentally combined.
How to Assess Your Risk
The first step to any disaster preparedness plan is understanding your immediate surroundings and the closest threat areas. You can easily go to your city or town’s welcome center and pick up a few free paper maps of your area. These are standard at welcome centers across the country. On these maps, use a pen to mark the location of all the chemical plants, public swimming pools, and refineries in your area. If there are other buildings/business ventures that are sources of potential poisonous gas leaks, mark them too.
That will give you a very solid—but incomplete—reference of the likely sources of leaks in your geographic region. This is incomplete because you have no way of knowing with certainty every building in your area that uses potentially dangerous chemicals that can create noxious clouds.
Consider this “the fog of war.” Your data will be incomplete, but it’s certainly more information than you would have had otherwise.
The next step is to know how the wind tends to blow in your area. After World War I, chemical warfare experts spent a considerable amount of time analyzing wind patterns due to the fact that wind is one of the most potent variables in this type of warfare. The same principle applies to accidental chemical releases.
For an excellent study on the history of chemical warfare, we recommend Jonathan B. Tucker’s War of Nerves.
If you know how the wind blows where you live, you have a good idea which way a noxious cloud would travel in the event of a release. The best way to keep track of this information is with Windy.com, a site that lets you see wind patterns in real-time. Take the time to study the wind patterns in your region.
When you know where potentially dangerous sites are and the typical wind patterns, you can put together the pieces to find the safe zones should a public swimming pool accidentally release a chlorine gas cloud.
If the wind in your region travels from southwest to northeast and the release happens 10 miles north of your location, you know that you’re likely to be okay.
But information isn’t everything. You also have to be able to act upon that information. That’s where having the proper gear comes to the forefront. What equipment is needed to survive an accidental chemical release? Read on …
What Can You Do to Keep Yourself Safe From Industrial Accidents?
These situations aren’t hopeless. There are things you can do right now to better ensure your family is protected from accidental chemical releases.
Have a high-quality gas mask and filter
The easiest thing you can do is keep a gas mask ready for each member of your household. Stocked with the proper filters, you’ll be able to safely move through an area that has been impacted by an accidental chemical release.
Our CM-6M full-face gas mask fits the bill perfectly. This mask, when combined with a NBC-77 SOF Filter, will help ensure that the air you breathe is safe in the event of an industrial chemical release. The respirator’s bromobutyl rubber will keep out any harmful chemical agents and particles while its panoramic visor will provide a full field of view to navigate through hazardous spaces. This mask can easily be stowed away in an office desk drawer, in the trunk of your car, or in your bedroom closet until it is needed.
(Image Courtesy of Ridge Host)
The NBC-77 SOF Filter not only protects your lungs from inhaled radioactive threats (e.g., a dirty bomb), but will also block chlorine, ammonia, sulfur dioxide, and a wide range of other common chemicals. Should there be an accidental chemical release in your vicinity, this is a great, uncompromising filter that will help keep your family safe.
Protect the rest of your body
"Consider also that the chemical gas leak nearby could also be harmful to the skin. If that is the case, the MIRA Safety HAZ-Suit is among the most affordable and robust full bodied PPE options on the market today. The suit's durable, puncture-resistant film construction serves as a barrier to over 125 chemicals, including chemical warfare agents (CWA) and toxic industrial chemicals (TIC). Combine this with our butyl hazmat boots, HAZ-Gloves, the aforementioned gas mask plus filter, and ChemTape to seal off the seams, you'll now have a full bodied protective solution."
These items are surprisingly easy to make compact and can be stored in a bug-out bag or placed in a closet.
Have an early alert system
Much like smoke detectors give you an early alert of a house fire (improving your chance of survival as a result), there are radios that can do the same in the event of an emergency. SAME-capable radios constantly monitor the airwaves for emergency alert broadcasts and alert you of the threat.
One of the threats that these radios can alert you to is a chemical release. This alert will likely come as code HMW (a Hazardous Materials Warning) on a SAME radio. By having one of these radios constantly scanning in the background, you’ll have a local “smoke detector,” if you will, that will alert you to significant threats in your area, giving you the time you need to take appropriate action.
Have a plan
If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. Such were the wise words of Benjamin Franklin, and such timeless advice still applies today. If there were an industrial accident tomorrow, would you know what to do to keep your family safe? Does everybody know where they should go?
What precautions would you take to ensure that everybody has safe air to breathe? If you have a safe room in your basement with an appropriate air filtration system in place, then all you have to do is to run to the room and seal the door.
Sheet plastic and duct tape can be used to seal doors and windows in the event of an accidental chemical release.
Unfortunately, that’s a major expense. What will your plan be if a dedicated, air-purified safe room isn’t an option?
If the chemical spill happens while you’re out on the road, you need to seek shelter. But like the Eddyville hydrochloric acid incident, if the roads to where you need to go are closed, this would effectively leave you trapped. This is a great example of why it is a good idea to have several paper road maps of your region and at least three alternate routes to your significant locations (e.g., your home, office, kid’s school, etc.).
You Can Survive a Chemical Gas Leak
While there’s no reason to believe that any of these examples of chemical releases were intentional, that further compounds the threat at hand. Do you trust your family’s safety to every worker who handles dangerous chemicals (and pieces of vital equipment) in your area?
Make a plan, and have a safe spot to retreat to. Put early warning systems in place, and keep high-quality gas masks and filters on hand. These are all easy steps to protect your family. Remember, we don’t live in a perfect world where disasters never occur. Entropy is ever present. Murphy’s law is real, and you live well within its reach.
To learn more about everyday hazards that could affect you, be sure to check out our Top 4 Common CBRN Threats article.