Michael Cornell, director of workforce and community services at the Owens Community College Center for Emergency Preparedness, said hazardous-materials manufacturing and handling are far safer than they were even two decades ago, but are still vulnerable to accidents for which people should have preparedness plans to cover both evacuation orders and stay-inside orders that could keep them confined for days at a time.
A greater threat than accidents, Mr. Cornell said, is terrorism, either involving a direct attack on haz-mat transport or detonation of a "dirty bomb" containing chemical or radiological material.
Even if such an attack were on a small scale, the scare factor would be huge, he said. "It's the world we live in today," Mr. Cornell said. "It could happen at any time, on any day."
The best response is education, awareness, and preparedness, he said, not fear. Every household, including people living alone, should assemble a 72-hour emergency kit that includes, among other things, nonperishable food, clothing for all seasons, toiletries, a flashlight and pocket radio, and batteries.
Multimember households should establish meeting places both at and away from their homes and identify a person who lives in another area who can serve as a contact point with the outside world, Mr. Cornell said.
The former policy simplifies head-counting in the event of a house fire or a mass evacuation, while the latter may reduce attempts by distant relatives or friends to call into areas where telecommunications may be jammed or disrupted.
For a stay-indoors emergency, he said, the best place to stay is an upstairs room with access to water and as few windows as possible, with black plastic and duct tape to seal off windows.
Why upstairs? Because the most common toxic-cloud chemicals, such as chlorine and anhydrous ammonia, are heavier than air and will fill basements first, Mr. Cornell said.
Metro Toledo is dotted with factories that handle a wide variety of industrial chemicals, ranging in size from its two large oil refineries to small manufacturers and businesses such as cleaning services and doctors' offices. Trains move hazardous materials through the city, and trucks carry them by the tanker load and in boxes and drums inside dry trailers.
Toxic chemicals are generally dangerous only through direct exposure or close proximity, Mr. Cornell said. But many household cleaners, pesticides, paints, solvents, and even air fresheners pose the threat of such exposure and proximity if they're handled or mixed improperly, he said, citing the example of chlorine gas released if ammonia and bleach are mixed.
"Don't mix bleach with anything, and you'll be better off," Mr. Cornell warned, after having remarked earlier: "A lot of people fear those big trains, but be aware of the hazardous chemicals in your homes."
Owens' Center for Emergency Preparedness primarily educates and trains emergency responders and military personnel, Mr. Cornell said, but it does offer classes to the general public from time to time.
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