Hazardous Material (HazMat) Incidents – Introduction


HAZMAT is an abbreviation for “hazardous materials”—substances in quantities or forms that may pose a reasonable risk to health, property, or the environment. HAZMATs include such substances as toxic chemicals, fuels, nuclear waste products, and biological, chemical, and radiological agents.  HAZMATs may be released as liquids, solids, gases, or a combination or form of all three, including dust, fumes, gas, vapor, mist, and smoke.

HAZMAT spills have caused health problems, injuries, and even death in people and animals, and have damaged buildings, homes, property, and the environment. Given such dire consequences, it is reasonable to conclude that one may not encounter HAZMATs on a daily basis. The truth, however, is that many products containing hazardous chemicals are routinely used and stored in homes, and are transported every day on the nation’s highways, railroads, waterways, and pipelines.

Hazardous material incidents are intentional and/or unintentional releases of a material, that because of their chemical, physical, or biological nature, pose a potential risk to life, health, environment, or property.

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HazMat Impact and Response

Each incident’s impact and resulting response depends on a multitude of interrelated variables that range from the quantity and specific characteristic of the material to the conditions of the release and area/population centers involved. Releases may be small and easily handled with local response resources or rise to catastrophic levels with long-term consequences that require representatives of federal, state, and local governments to be present at the scene, with each level consisting of personnel from between five and fifteen different agencies.[1]

Hazardous materials in various forms can cause death, serious injury, long-lasting health effects and damage to buildings, homes and other property. Many products containing hazardous chemicals are used and stored in homes routinely. These products are also shipped daily on the nation’s highways, railroads, waterways and pipelines.

Chemical manufacturers are one source of hazardous materials, but there are many others, including service stations, hospitals and hazardous materials waste sites. Varying quantities of hazardous materials are manufactured, used or stored at an estimated 4.5 million facilities in the United States–from major industrial plants to local dry cleaning establishments or gardening supply stores.

FEMA and Local Emergency Management Offices

FEMA is responsible for coordinating all civil emergency planning, management, mitigation, and assistance functions of the Federal Government. Under SARA’s Title III, FEMA is the primary Federal agency responsible for planning and related training for hazardous materials emergency management. This authority encompasses accidents at manufacturing, processing, storage, and disposal facilities, as well as hazardous materials in transit by highways, on water, by rail, and by air.[3]

Many communities have Local Emergency Planning Committees (LEPCs) whose responsibilities include collecting information about hazardous materials in the community and making this information available to the public upon request. The LEPCs also are tasked with developing an emergency plan to prepare for and respond to chemical emergencies in the community. Ways the public will be notified and actions the public must take in the event of a release are part of the plan.[4]

Contact the LEPCs to find out more about chemical hazards and what needs to be done to minimize the risk to individuals and the community from these materials. Your local emergency management office can provide contact information on the LEPCs. FEMA – Find your state office or agency of emergency management

Exposure to Hazardous Materials

It is not always possible to rely on the senses to detect the presence of hazardous materials—such clues as pungent odors or a feeling of nausea may or may not be present. (For example, Radon, the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States, is a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas.)

To find out whether you are exposed to hazardous materials is, therefore, a matter of research. Federal laws require disclosure and identification of hazardous materials in specific circumstances. For example, hazardous materials shipments crossing State lines, and many hazardous materials used in the workplace, must be labeled. For such substances a MSDS is often available that provides detailed information on the material’s attributes and required self-protection. State laws often “close loopholes” in Federal legislation (such as transportation of hazardous materials within State lines) to provide further citizen protection. To identify the presence of hazardous materials in your community, consider all five phases of the material’s “life”—production, transportation, storage, use, and disposal.[5]


  1. Washington – Emergency Management Division – Hazardous Materials: http://www.emd.wa.gov/hazards/haz_hazardous_materials.shtml
  2. Ready.gov – Hazardous Material Incidents: http://www.ready.gov/hazardous-materials-incidents
  3. FEMA – IS-5.a An Introduction to Hazardous Materials – Unit 1, p.1-5 : http://training.fema.gov/emiweb/is/is5lst.asp
  4. Ready.gov – Hazardous Material Incidents: http://www.ready.gov/hazardous-materials-incidents
  5. FEMA – IS-5.a An Introduction to Hazardous Materials – Unit 3, p. 3-9: http://training.fema.gov/emiweb/is/is5lst.asp
  6. Image Source: https://www.ntsb.gov/investigations/fulltext/RAB1203.html [Accessed: January 14, 2014]