Are we truly prepared for the worst?
St. Louis episode shines a light on homeland security
Volume 23, No. 6
Since 9/11, the federal government has doled out more than $16 billion in anti-terrorism money to states and cities. Principle among those anti-terrorism concerns has been the risk of chemical or biological attack. Training scenarios that involve hundreds of thousands of lives have become routine for emergency response nationwide.
Belaying any confidence that this money has made us safer is an incident reported on Labor Day weekend in St. Louis, MO. Emergency rooms at two major area hospitals were put out of action for nearly a day by an incident that, if properly handled from the beginning, would have resulted in nothing more than a fairly serious onsite industrial hazmat incident.
One of the most important features found in every issue of Industrial Fire World is the Incident Log. Hundreds of industrial incidents are detailed in brief, giving insight into the vast range of calamity that can befall our readers. For example:
- Sept. 2 -- Christchurch, New Zealand: 9 sheet metal factory workers required treatment after trichloroethylene exposure.
- Sept. 15 -- Tiptree, U.K.: Toxic gas sent 12 jam factory workers to the hospital.
- Sept. 30 -- Brightton, NY: A chlorine leak forced 20 workers to evacuate a pump manufacturing plant.
For the most part, these emergencies are handled with appropriate urgency, with management taking full responsibility for the health of their workers and the surrounding community. Even in places like India and China, the government takes a dim view of the bad public relations generated by a mishandled response to a hazmat incident. China continues to deal with the fall-out of a scandal in which the industrial chemical melamine was found to have been commonly mixed into milk to give it the appearance of higher protein levels. Government officials delayed passing on the news for nearly a month until after the Beijing Olympics.
The last time I checked, East St. Louis was still part of the United States, not India or China. And yet the initial handling of the hazmat emergency at an East St. Louis packaging plant that spread eight sickened, chemically contaminated workers across metropolitan St. Louis makes one think of a third-, fourth- or fifth-world nation. Out of the 250-plus items listed in the September incident log, the East St. Louis misadventure stands out in the massive degree to which those immediately contaminated put others at risk through their uninformed or irresponsible actions.
If ever an incident called out for intense scrutiny by OSHA and the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, this is it. If there was an emergency plan in place, it was not followed. These workers should have known exactly what they were handling, the proper equipment to wear, the procedures if something should go wrong and the correct authorities to contact.
The bottom line is that eight contaminated workers created havoc with the health care system for a major American city. What is going to happen when we are faced with an incident affecting 5,000? Or 25,000?
Terrorism, by its very nature, is unpredictable. Couple this uncertainty with the increasing production and ready availability of weapons of mass destruction and it is evident why terrorism experts agree that it is not a question of whether we are attacked but rather a question of when and to what degree. This incident casts doubt as to whether we are ready to handle a mass casualty chemical or biological incident.