Chemical Spills

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Chemical Spills


Chemical spills are far more common occurrences than the public generally realizes. Since 1993, over 30,000 oil or chemical spills have been reported annually in the United States alone. These spills occur in waterways, railways, highways, and in the air. Most highway spills involve a corrosive chemical such as an acid or a flammable material such as gasoline. The large number of chemical spills each year presents a significant risk to public health and the environment. Such spills can cause long-lasting damage to soil, groundwater, and aquatic life.

Historical Background and Scientific Foundations

For decades, chemistry students around the world were taught that “the solution to pollution is dilution.” In the absence of sound scientific knowledge, most people thought that a chemical spill did little damage as long as the chemical could be washed away in a river or blown away in the wind. Only in the 1970s and 1980s, as chemical spills became the subject of terrifying news reports, did this nonchalant attitude begin to disappear.

One of the worst chemical spills took place in 1984 when methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas leaked from a tank at a Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal, India. According to the state government of Madhya Pradesh, the death toll reached 3,500 people while 40 people suffered permanent disability and 2,680 people suffered permanent partial disabilities. Other estimates place the number of dead as high as 8,000. The company, a subsidiary of Dow Chemical, paid damages to the government of Bhopal to settle all litigation. Union Carbide had previous problems with chemical spills. In 1982, Tennessee health officials warned the public against consuming fish from an Oak Ridge creek because of high levels of mercury left from a Union Carbide spill in 1966.

U.S. authorities were slow to learn from the lessons of Bhopal. In August 1985, a small amount of MIC gas leaked from a Union Carbide plant in Institute, West Virginia. The potential for a Bhopal-type disaster in the United States prompted the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to establish the voluntary Chemical Emergency Preparedness program to encourage local and state authorities to identify hazards and plan for emergencies. In 1986, the U.S. Congress incorporated many elements of this program in the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986.

Impacts and Issues

Chemical spills commonly result from the unsafe handling of chemicals, improper chemical storage, chemical storage tank ruptures, improper containers for chemical disposal, and failure to dispose of chemicals in a timely manner. The spills that have taken place on U.S. land and territorial waters since 1982 can be found via the National Response Center. Searches can be conducted based on spiller, location, and material involved. Such information helps in the successful management of spills.

However, more complete information is needed, particularly for other countries, and it is not yet readily available. The successful management of a spill is dependent upon the information about the chemical and its ability to immediately impact human health, groundwater, surface water, and soils that the responders possess. Responders do not always have the name of the chemical involved in the spill let alone details about the type of soil and nearby sources of water. It is also likely that not all spills, especially small ones, are reported for fear of legal and economic consequences.

A shortage of funds also hampers clean-up efforts. In 1975, the state of Virginia closed a 100-mi (160-km) stretch of the James River because an Allied Chemical plant had illegally released kepone into the water. Fines were collected from the company, but were exhausted before the contaminated sediment could be removed from the river. The waterway finally reopened to com-


KEPONE: A carcinogenic pesticide, banned in the United States in 1975, that caused a 1970s environmental disaster in Hopewell, Virginia.

METHYL ISOCYANATE (MIC): A toxic chemical used in the manufacture of pesticides, which caused a disastrous 1984 chemical leak in Bhopal, India.

mercial fishing in 1988, in spite of claims from environmentalists that the James River would need hundreds of years to clean itself. Although the kepone scandal made headlines, reductions in state and federal clean-up programs do not attract the same levels of attention, yet similar levels of damage may be left in the environment as a result.

See Also DDT; Hazardous Waste; Spill Remediation; Toxic Waste; Water Pollution



Flynn, Ann Marie. Health Safety and Accident Management in the Chemical Process Industries. New York: Marcel Dekker, 2002.

Kurtzman, Dan. A Killing Wind: Inside Union Carbide and the Bhopal Catastrophe. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1987.

Web Sites

National Response Center. (accessed February 22, 2008).

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Chemical Spills

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