Feb. 18, 2003 COLLEGE STATION, February 17, 2003 - Eighteen years after a leak at a chemical plant in Bhopal, India killed thousands of people on Dec. 3, 1984, a new report on chemical safety in the United States shows that while the number of incidents are falling, a lot of work still remains to be done to eliminate them.
According to a study by the Texas Engineering Experiment Station's Mary Kay O'Connor Process Safety Center, less than half of people in the United States are aware of chemical plants in their communities, and even fewer were aware of any chemical accidents occurring in their communities during the previous five years. And, the majority of those people surveyed had not received any information telling them what to do to protect themselves in case of a chemical accident in their community.
Put together over a two-year period by more than 80 representatives from government, industry, academia and public interest groups, the report examines public awareness of chemical spills and safety, ways of measuring chemical safety and the usefulness of how the federal government compiles and maintains records on incidents involving the release of harmful chemicals.
Dr. Sam Mannan, director of the Mary Kay O'Connor Process Safety Center, said that while the chemical industry has a tremendous impact on the national economy, until now no one has ever done a national assessment of where the industry is, where it needs to go and what improvements are needed in terms of chemical safety.
"It's amazing in this country how we track anything to do with financial resources," said Mannan, who is also a professor in Texas A&M University's Department of Chemical Engineering. "We can tell you to the decimal point how good or bad the stock market is doing. We don't do that for chemical safety."
The report finds that the chemical industry still has a lot of work to do in some areas, especially in terms of keeping their communities informed about what's going on. While people surveyed in the study felt their community could respond well to a chemical accident, they still believed their families would be in danger.
"We need to have a better informed public -- where the public trusts the information coming out of the chemical industry -- so people are better able to deal with emergencies such as chemical incidents," Mannan said. "Public trust is essential for improved safety."
The number of chemical spills in the United States and the number of injuries and fatalities from these spills do appear to be declining, he said. However, no one can say this for sure because this information is not used for tracking or looking at trends.
"In order to understand what's going on, we have to continue to chart progress," he said. "We need to be able to do these reports on an annual basis." Among the report's other findings and recommendations:
* The top five most released chemicals in the United States from 1994-1999 are: ammonia, chlorine, hydrogen, propane and formaldehyde.
* Federal agencies need to ensure chemical incidents that must be reported by chemical companies are being reported.
* Agencies need to make databases on chemical incidents fully searchable and accessible by the public.
* Industry, government and public interest groups must determine how to define "chemical safety" and what factors will be examined and measured to determine the status of chemical safety in the United States.
The mission of the Mary Kay O'Connor Process Safety Center is to improve safety in the chemical process industry. The Center conducts programs and research activities that enhance safety in the chemical process industries. The Center's educational activities promote safety as second nature to everyone in the industry.
**Online copies of the complete report are available at: http://ncsp.tamu.edu .
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