Hazardous Materials and Earthquakes

Homeland SecurityMost households contain some "hazardous materials."  These are common, everyday products sold in the supermarket or hardware store.  Used for their intended purpose under normal circumstances these items are safe, but they can cause injury or death in an earthquake.

If an earthquake spills these materials, your family could be injured or your home could be damaged or destroyed.  This information will help you reduce the possible harm to your family and home from this kind of earthquake damage.

Recent California earthquakes caused these accidents:

  • Spilled gasoline was ignited by a downed power line

  • Vapors from broken liquor bottles were ignited by a near-by gas heater and caused a fire

  • Ammonia and bleach fell off racks in a janitorial supply area, generating chlorine gas and resulting in the evacuation of a residential building

  • Paint thinner ignited in a garage when a fluorescent electrical fixture fell into the spilled solvent

  • A pesticide container fell from a shelf, breaking and making the family ill

  • A drain cleaner container fell from a shelf, spilling and burning the skin of the children contacting it

Examples of Hazardous Materials:

FLAMMABLES

Many paints, wood finishes, thinners, solvents, and cleaners can catch on fire easily.  Gasoline and some liquids used for cars are found in garages or workspaces around the home.  A spark, flame, or other heat source could start a fire with these materials if they hve been spilled or released by container breakage.

Some flammables can also cause harm if they are inhaled or are absorbed through the skin.  Nerve damage, internal organ damage, or birth defects have been found in laboratory animals tested with some of these materials.

Flammables should be stored in proper containers and storage cabinets away from possible sparks, flames, and hot machinery.  Pilot lights or electrical equipment which produces sparks or heat should be avoided.  If possible, flammables should not be stored inside a home or apartment.  A fire extinguisher should be readily available.

CAUSTICS

Cleaning and maintenance products like ammonia, bleach, drain cleaners, and pool chemicals can burn or damage skin or other body tissues.   Eye damage can be a speical hazard of these products.  When cleaning up spills, take protective actions:  wear goggles, rubber gloves, proctective clothing or apron and long sleeves.  Any skin contacted by these materials should be immediately flushed with large amounts of water.

Store ammonia and bleach separately because if they mix, toxic chlorine gas can be produced.

TOXICS Pesticides and insecticides can cause injury or illness on contact with skin or when swallowed.  Since the purpose of these materials is to kill living organisms they should be used with great care and stored so they are not released during an earthquake.  Childproof latches or locked cabinets can keep these poisons from spilling during an earthquake.

Eliminate the Hazard

  • The result of flammable spills can be catastrophic, look at their storage, and use in your home first.
  • Buy only the amount you need and will use for the job at hand.
  • Look for safer, less hazardous substitutes.
  • Although there may not be good substitutes for all hazardous materials there may be products available that are less dangerous than the product you currently use.
  • Instead of flammable paints and varnishes use water-based paints and wood finishes.   Bruches or rollers can be cleaned with water.
  • Baking soda and vinegar solutions can substitute for stronger and more hazardous cleaners for some jobs.
  • Dispose of unneeded or out of date hazardous materials in your home.  Consult with your local fire department or health department for proper and legal disposal.

Be an Aware and Informed Consumer!

Always read the label.  It can provide:

  • Instructions on safe use
  • Special precautions and warnings
  • Safe and environmentally responsible disposal information
  • Instructions on handling accidents or spills
  • Only buy what you need and will use.
  • Minimize what you have in or near your home.  Don't buy more than you will use.
  • Use the original container.
  • If you must use a secondary container, keep the label with the product.
  • Consider using safer alternatives to "hazardous materials."

Cleanup

  • Do not clean up the spill unless you know it can be done safely.
  • Use eye and skin protection and make sure the area has adequate ventilation.
  • If flammables are involved, eliminate any ignition sources.
  • Reduce rather than increase or spread the hazard.  For example, don't flush flammables down the block to your neighbor's house.  Use towels or kitty litter to soak up the liquid and place in a sealed platic bag for disposal.
  • Consult with your local health or fire department if you have questions about proper disposal, after you have taken care of the immediate problem.  Special programs are sometimes arranged to handle household hazardous materials problems following an earthquake.

General Rules for Storing Household Hazardous Materials

  • Safe storage can reduce the danger of the hazardous household products which you keep in or near your home.
  • Store hazardous materials outside of your living space, if possible.
  • Approved safety containers for gasoline and solvents are available at automotive supply or hardware stores.
  • Explosion-proof metal storage cabinets are manufactured for storage of flammable materials.  If you routinely store significant amounts of flammables, you might consider buying a unit like this.  Bolt the cabinet securely to a wall.
  • Store containers on a low shelf to minimize breakage.
  • Restrain containers to control container breakage.
  • Minimize crushing or breaking of containers by storing them within a rigid structure like a metal, plastic, or wood box or crate.  The storage unit should be bolted securely to a wall.
  • Store flammables away from possible flames, sparks, and hot surfaces.
  • Store incompatible materials - for example, chlorine bleach and ammonia - in seperate places.

More Information

For further information, contact your local fire department, health department, or office of emergency services.  Obtain facts about a specific product from the manufacturer identified on the label.

Protect your home and family from hazardous materials