Chlorine Gas Is a Major Risk across the Country, but Needn't Be

Currently, over 2,700 facilities nationwide store large amounts of toxic chlorine gas, putting millions of Americans at risk of serious harm in the event of an explosion or leak. In the past 15 years, over 600 accidents injuring almost 800 people have occurred at these facilities. However, safer alternatives are available, and many facilities have already turned to them, showing that these alternatives can be commercially successful. Check our new interactive map to see if there are facilities with chlorine gas in your community.

The Health Risks of Chlorine Gas

Chlorine gas is so toxic that it was used as a chemical weapon during World War I. Today, the chemical is most often used as a disinfectant in drinking water treatment, sewage plants, and some food processing facilities. It is also used to manufacture plastics, insecticides, solvents, and household cleaning products, such as bleach.

Exposure to concentrated amounts of chlorine gas causes eye irritation, vomiting, coughing, a choking sensation, and lung irritation. Higher chlorine exposure may also lead to acute respiratory distress syndrome, an inflammation of the lungs from breathing in chemical fumes, and even death. Although chlorine itself is not flammable, it can react explosively or form explosive compounds when mixed with other chemicals like turpentine and ammonia.

The Clean Air Act requires facilities handling large quantities of toxic or flammable chemicals to submit risk management plans (RMPs). For chlorine, facilities storing 2,500 pounds or more on-site must submit an RMP detailing worse-case scenarios and what response measures are in place in the event of a chemical release.

Currently, over 2,700 facilities file risk management plans. About 2,000 of these are either water treatment or wastewater treatment plants that use chlorine in their operations, with the remaining facilities comprised of industrial sites or chemical plants.

Impacts of Chlorine Gas Exposure

Workers were the main victims of facility accidents. For example, in 2010, a tank filled with chlorine gas at a metal recycling facility in Tulare, CA, was pierced, which resulted in 23 people being rushed to the hospital and six kept for treatment. One inspector at the facility had to be on life support for several days with lung damage. The facility was fined $15,000 for the incident (which the company is appealing). The medical and human costs of such accidents were likely much higher.

Emergency personnel, who respond to these accidents, are also at serious risk of hazardous exposure. In 2007, a leaking chlorine gas container at the Pioneer Americas Tacoma bleach plant in Tacoma, WA forced the Port of Tacoma to close. After the leaking cylinder was plugged, a shift in the wind exposed more than 25 individuals to the gas, many of them first responders. They were taken to the hospital where one of the firefighters began coughing up blood. Days later, several first responders continued to report feeling sick and required medical treatment.

The Tacoma plant accident, which occurred at night, could have been much worse. An estimated 10,000 people who work in the plant's surrounding industrial neighborhood had mostly gone home for the evening. An internal report on the incident noted the importance of better air monitoring, the need to use respirators (many firefighters didn't use them), and the need to limit access to the danger zone. The company agreed to pay a $15,804 penalty for failing to properly notify authorities and donated nearly $60,000 worth of emergency response equipment to the Tacoma Fire Department. But the company paid a fine of only $1,650 to the state Department of Labor and Industries for this incident.

The Safety Record of Facilities with Chlorine Gas

Over the past 15 years, over 600 major accidents were reported at facilities storing chlorine. These incidents resulted in 779 injuries and two deaths, almost 22,000 people evacuated, and over $127 million in property damage. Texas has the most facilities storing chlorine gas, followed by California and Louisiana. Texas also had the most accidents (80).

But safety records are not just a concern in the larger states. Delaware has nine facilities storing chlorine gas over the past 15 years, and three of those facilities have had 14 accidents. Arkansas has had 41 accidents, and they happened in only eight of the 91 facilities in the state. A single Georgia-Pacific paper plant (a subsidiary of Koch Industries) in Crossett, AR accounted for 18 accidents where chlorine gas and chlorine dioxide (another chlorine-based toxic gas) were stored on-site. The majority of the accidents were due to equipment failure.

Accidents in the Transportation Sector

Some of the most severe incidents involving chlorine have occurred in transport. A 2011 report from the U.S. Department of Transportation ranked chlorine as one of the top chemicals with high-impact causalities, with nine fatalities and 83 major injuries resulting from 48 chlorine transportation accidents.

For example, in 2005, two trains collided in Graniteville, SC in one of the worst chlorine-related catastrophes in recent years. A derailed freight car was punctured, releasing a large amount of chlorine gas that killed nine people and caused respiratory difficulties among 554 others. More than 5,000 people in the area were evacuated, and the damages from the incident totaled over $6.9 million.

Improving Chemical Security and Decreasing Risk

Over the last 15 years, almost 5,000 facilities stored or produced large amounts of chlorine, but 40 percent of these facilities have "deregistered" and no longer submit risk management plans to the EPA. EPA data does not report why a facility was "deregistered" – it could be that the quantity of chlorine stored at a facility fell below 2,500 pounds, the facility might have switched to a safer chemical, or it may have simply closed.

The extensive use of toxic chlorine gas across the country is increasingly unnecessary as a variety of safer and affordable alternatives and processes are available. Indeed, the potential for safety improvements has already led some companies to replace chlorine gas altogether. In 2009, the Clorox Company transitioned away from using chlorine to produce bleach at its 600 facilities and instead began purchasing bleach produced by others without using chlorine in its toxic gas form.

The Dow Chemical Company and K2 Pure Solutions also opened bleach manufacturing plants that don't use chlorine gas. Although the Dow Chemical Company has instituted these safer manufacturing procedures at its Pittsburg, CA plant, it has not undergone a company-wide transition similar to Clorox.

In addition, nearly 125 water treatment plants have switched from chlorine gas to liquid bleach or ultraviolet treatments, according to a 2008 Center for American Progress report. The report also cites strategies that paper mills, chemical manufacturers, and bleach facilities can use to eliminate or reduce the safety and security risk associated with chlorine gas, often while also decreasing operating costs.

Bolder Oversight Is Needed

In August, after the explosions in West, TX and Geismar, LA, President Obama signed Executive Order 13650, which created a federal working group to make recommendations on improving safety and security for hazardous chemicals such as chlorine gas. A standard on requiring facilities to adopt safer chemicals and processes should be part of these recommendations. The working group is tasked with reaching out to stakeholders during its work, and there should be opportunities for all those concerned about such dangerous chemicals to participate.

You can participate in one of the working group’s sessions or urge the president to use his authority to begin requiring companies to use safer technologies and chemicals.

Sofia Plagakis contributed to this article.

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