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Extreme Weather and Industrial Plants, a Toxic Combination

How the Harmful Effects of Chemical Accidents Can Be Minimized

Nature has more control over people’s lives than it might be thought. Natural disasters are one of the key factors that can alter the life quality of American citizens and even prove to be life-threatening. The most helpful tool connected to these environmental issues would be a strong focus on regulatory instruments.

Nature has more control over people’s lives than it might be thought. Natural disasters are one of the key factors that can alter the life quality of American citizens and even prove to be life-threatening. The impact of natural disasters can also lead to chemical accidents, which have become a highly-debated topic of any environmentally-focused discussion. Climate change is currently perceived as one of the main causes of brutal natural disasters. These chemical-related consequences have become a pervasive problem in the American coastal regions. The current issues related to this topic, as well as possible inherent solutions that could be applied in this direction, will be presented below.

Extreme Weather Conditions

Many chemical facilities are located in low‐lying coastal areas and are vulnerable to damage from extreme weather, which is increasing with climate change. Severe weather can trigger industrial disasters in various ways, including major chemical releases. Some appropriate examples of extreme meteorological phenomenons that Americans have to face, and that can, consequently, lead to chemical accidents, are tropical cyclones, hurricanes, and extremely heavy downpours. These happen to leave behind horrifying quantities of debris across American states. Strong wind and torrential rain caused the rivers and seas to flood and inundate the land, spreading over the surrounding areas. The main issue here is that water brings along numerous types of residues that prove to be toxic.

Florida is the state that presents the highest future flood risk among the American states. The topography and geology aspects of the region make it susceptible to natural disasters such as the Hurricanes Irma (in 2017) and Michael (in 2018). Hurricane Irma and Maria created together, as an example, almost 27 million cube meters of debris across the state of Florida. The sea-level rise proves and highlights the existing prevalent risk of flooding and land erosion across Florida and other coastal American areas. 

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How a Hurricane Can Ruin It All

Hurricanes can release the amount of energy of 10 atomic bombs put together. Imagining such a power being involved, it is not a matter of great difficulty to picture what the extent of the impact would be. The high wind speeds associated with hurricanes create huge waves that destroy everything in their way. Numerous chemical facilities and installations are located near the coastal area where hurricanes occur and are susceptible to the inherent terrorizing effects of such a natural disaster. If any industrial facility is lying in the water’s path, the chances are that all the chemicals stored there could be released after being violently hit by the enormous waves.

Throughout history, chemical plants hit by hurricanes leaked phosphoric acid, and benzene, and spread various toxic heavy metals, such as lead, into the environment. Even after the storm generated by the hurricane passes, the flood remains, washing away everything around, including what can be found on the lots of industrial plants, meaning chemicals. Even if most of the water volume is diverted into open land in the attempt of saving the citizens and the elements of infrastructure, the remaining part ends up in the groundwaters, taking with it all the toxic materials and chemicals. Taking into account that groundwater is the source of about 37% of the water that is supplied to households and businesses, the correlation between citizens and the danger of toxicity becomes undeniable. 

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What is “Natech”

The chemical accidents triggered by natural disasters are referred to as Natech. This phenomenon occurs when hazardous installations are directly affected by dangerous weather conditions. Floods are a relevant example in this direction, regardless if they are generated by hurricanes, or by the rise of sea levels. Natural disasters leave behind devastating consequences, which put American citizens’ safety in jeopardy. For instance, during a flood, the equipment located at the affected installation is compromised, and that leaves room for loss of containment and hazardous materials. Now, this comes as a big concern for the population because of the toxic nature of the materials used, which end up really close to where people live or work.

Regulations linked to Natech can be hard to enforce. Due to the high level of toxicity, waste should be stored in special containers, labeled specifically to their contents. The federal law allows generators to store up to 55 gallons of chemical waste in a satellite accumulation area. Despite that, in the circumstance of a natural disaster, the storing systems can no longer be controlled and overseen by the workers of the factory or plant at stake. During a severe storm, the storage tanks are completely washed by the floodwaters, and the toxic elements contaminate the environment. The most hazardous substances released during such an event are numerous heavy metals, benzene compounds, PFAs, PCBs, and other toxic solvent mixtures.

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The Health Effects of Chemical Exposure

The way the above-mentioned chemicals affect people’s systems is fundamental in order to evaluate the possible risks. Although minor spills do not pose immediate health risks, more significant quantities leaked can affect public health in different ways. Depending on other existing health conditions, the symptoms can differ in nature in intensity from individual to individual. The effects of long-term exposure to arsenic, for instance, can generate lung and skin cancer, as well as various kidney and lung diseases, as well as chronic cardiovascular abnormalities. The general long-term effects of toxic metal exposure are mostly malign. Therefore the affected cells often turn carcinogenic. 

Benzene, however, can be inhaled in industrial areas, and waste sites, or can reach our bloodstream after consuming water that has been contaminated with leaks from underground storage tanks. The most affected organs are the lungs and the respiratory system in general. PFAs and PCBs can also enter the body via drinking water, or by eating fish caught in contaminated waters. These substances increase the risk of testicular and kidney cancer, which adds up to the list of previously-listed carcinogenic risks. Serious cardiac conditions pose a threat too, being triggered by the increased cholesterol levels that can result from prolonged direct contact with these chemicals.

Research proved that industrial facilities that were already affected in terms of worker health were only worsened by exposure to toxic substances and heavy metals. Even the neoprene protective wear can be damaged by harmful substances and, therefore, conclude in direct skin exposure to chemicals. The general fact about all these chemical substances is that short-term exposure generates minor, to more severe symptoms, such as skin rashes, migraines, fatigue, fever, local pain, and so forth. Longer-term exposure is the one that sends the most alarming signals, triggering cancer or diverse respiratory severe conditions. A significant spill often involves an uncontrolled fire or explosion, and, in the event of that, the health effects are often life-threatening. Even if death is not always involved, the long-term consequences completely alter the life quality of the citizens.

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Oversight and a Solid Regulatory Framework Can Help

The projections conclude that these hazardous events will become even more prevalent in the American coastal areas, due to the unpredictability of the climate conditions that trigger repetitive meteorological phenomenons. The release of dangerous chemicals connected to extreme weather conditions can’t be completely controlled by the regulatory instruments. However, what should be done is to try to minimize the effects by consolidating a preventative strategy.

Health and environmental protection groups can address the issues by requiring adequate risk management at the level of facilities that are at risk. Certain federal acts have been providing public information campaigns about the hazards of polluting industries and provided data and relevant analysis on the national security concerns related to the toxic exposure problems. Regardless of the actual measures taken at the industrial level, informing and educating the citizens about the matter is the most important preventive tool. People should be aware of the risks and the magnitude of the problem before actually moving to the action plan.

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What Is Missing

While mentioning tank contents, ownership and location are currently demanded, there are numerous other aspects of high importance that have not been clearly and accordingly regulated by law. Appropriate regulations should be enacted as a part of the oversight system created to address toxic exposure issues. The materials used, the general construction, and operative standards followed to build containers should be reviewed in order to avoid the extensive damage associated with leakage and spillage. Other regulatory aspects, such as periodical container quality inspections, should also be set to prevent further negative environmental impacts of the leakages.

To diminish the extent of the devastating consequences of a chemical accident, the starting point of the procedure should be researching and assessing the potential risks connected to natural hazards. An appropriate risk management system can create a “shield” in the event of such a disaster. Apart from constantly checking the quality of tank and container materials that keep the substances in, the industrial facilities should also focus on preparing the employees. Considering that most of the time, people get intoxicated without notice, prevention is the most critical aspect. The employees can take part in such preventive programs by learning the risks and being taught exactly what measures to take and what steps to follow if leakage occurs, the initiative is entirely under the control of the well-trained risk management team. 

All in all, nature is unpredictable. However, history proves that the possibilities of a natural disaster are present, and moreover, growing with time. What should be acknowledged is that their impact can be diminished. The facilities located in the high-risk areas should collaborate responsively in an effort to find proper solutions to the imminent hazard-related problems. If suitable measures are taken, numerous health conditions can be avoided and even lots of lives saved.

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Jonathan Sharp

Jonathan Sharp is Chief Financial Officer at Environmental Litigation Group, P.C. The law firm, headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama, specializes in toxic exposure, assisting individuals and communities affected by hazardous substances.

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