Protecting Children in the New Time of Terrorism: What Schools Should Do
<-- Terrorism and Industrial Chemicals
Protecting Children in the New Time of Terrorism: What Schools Should Do
Fred Millar, Ph.D.
Many worry that the terrorists will choose their next targets from the explosive and toxic chemical facilities and/or chemical rail tankcars that are all around us and that resultant toxic gas cloud releases could possibly impact schools. "CNN Presents" recently (December 2001) aired a one-hour documentary on "What Next?" – what might we expect in targets from the terrorists? In the segment on industrial chemicals, which CNN suggested was perhaps the most likely next set of targets, Mayor O’Malley of Baltimore was quoted as saying that it was very difficult to get private companies to erect security fences, etc. around their loaded railroad chemical tankcars. CNN showed tank cars in Baltimore with graffiti on the side, clearly not kept under effective security. Baltimore City fire prevention officials assert that there are at least eight sites in the city where leased siding storage of railcars occurs, and without any serious security measures.
D.C. officials this month reportedly hauled away in the dark of night, under guard, the ten chlorine tank cars previously sitting at the Blue Plains sewage treatment plant and switched the plant to a chemical (bleach) posing no disaster risks. The national Chlorine Institute’s safety guidance shows a deadly toxic cloud from one tank car could extend 14.8 miles long in whatever direction the wind is blowing. Many kinds of dangerous rail cars move daily through the D.C. metro area, then through the Baltimore tunnel, Philadelphia and Wilmington.
Fairfax County VA public school officials for the first time are quietly mapping out the location of the County’s 55 most hazardous facilities in correlation with nearby schools. We cannot afford the opposite, an ostrich-like strategy of ignoring these possible threats. Chemical managers try to keep their riskiest chemicals contained; terrorists would aim to release them to cause the most harm or shock to Americans. A chemical facility or rail line need not be within eyesight of a school to pose a danger: worst-case scenario maps filed by chemical plants in Augusta GA showed toxic gas clouds stretching out 3 to 15 miles. See maps: http://www.augustachronicle.com/stories/101097/met_risk_maps.html
Responsible preparation for disaster demands knowledge of the actual risks and accountability for planning and implementation. Since boards of education bear the ultimate responsibility for protecting students, it is the risk-adverse board and district superintendent who must engage their community in a full and complete understanding of and preparation for the unthinkable. In New York State, for example, all schools-- from the most rural k-12 school with fewer than 100 students enrolled to New York City, the nation's largest school district-- are required to have Emergency Management Plans and School Safety Plans that cover topics such as ice storms, in-school chemical spills, bomb threats, student violence, and more. New York City is updating its plans.
A federal website, valuable for concerned parents, can suggest whether your kids’ school – or your home -- is within the danger zone(s) of a nearby hazardous facility (not including transportation routes). At www.epa.gov/ceppo/vzis.htm you simply enter the street address, and the EPA database, using Risk Management Plan (RMP) information on accidental releases supplied by the facilities themselves, will soon reply by return email that "The EPA’s Vulnerable Zone Indicator System shows that the location you submitted is [or is not] likely to be [emphasis in original] in at least one RMP facility’s vulnerable zone."
Through this process one learns that the Fairfax addresses of one parent’s Middle School, Inova Hospital for Children, and Inova Fairfax Hospital were all "likely to be" in such vulnerable zones. Since the message will not say which facility or which chemical could cause the release, the concerned citizen needs to start talking with the principal, the local fire department, and the facility – a major aim of Right-to-Know regulations.
Principals currently are not even likely to know which risky facilities or freight rail lines are near their schools. Local security officials just now are understandably focused on reaction on potential anthrax-like attacks inside buildings, but need to seriously consider potential industrial chemical attacks that could cause toxic gas clouds from outside sensitive facilities such as schools or daycare centers. No data exists on how often this happens, but newspaper coverage has shown fearful students and teachers evacuating their schools.
An early wake-up call: on November 15, 1984, two weeks before the Bhopal India disaster that killed 3000 and injured 100,000, a Middleport NY elementary school was gassed with the same deadly chemical, Methyl Isocyanate, from a 9:05 AM ground-hugging cloud release at the FMC Corp. chemical facility located only 400 yards away. The principal was able to shut off the ventilation system that was bringing the gas inside, but the children, some herded into hallways to avoid the gas, many with breathing difficulties, were not finally evacuated until 10:50 AM. The bungling of the emergency response, featuring ill-informed doctors, hospital and health officials, is a sobering lesson. Nine children and two adults were taken to the hospital -- a toxicologist later suggested that if the day had been 20 degrees warmer, the toxic gas exposures would have reached the fatal level for many.
Sheltering-in-place, touted by some chemical industry officials as an effective strategy, only works under special conditions of a very short gas cloud release. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 1998 abruptly reversed its previous advice to shelter-in-place in a serious radiological gas cloud release, and now says residents should evacuate promptly. Principals need to discuss with nearby chemical facility managers the range of toxic cloud possibilities, and to get clear about how an alarm would be made, and under which conditions they should keep their students in place and when to flee.
There are many measures we can take to protect ourselves and our children, to lower the risks of the nearby dangerous facilities and cargoes (as the Blue Plains officials did), and to reduce the potential consequences of a release [see Action Items, below]. Emergency planning and risk reduction are not rocket science, but they will not be done competently without an appropriate level of concern and citizen involvement from those most at risk. In a time of terrorism, the appropriate level of concern about the storage and transportation of industrial chemicals in densely populated areas has gone up. And the President has invited patriotic citizens to get more involved in civic activities.
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