Fleeing from Harm: International Trends in Evacuations from Chemical Accidents

August 1991 (VOL. 9, NO. 2)

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This paper surveys the historical context of chemical hazards through an examination of the international pattern of airborne releases from 1900-1989. Changes in the frequency of incidents and the prevalence of evacuations during this time period are examined. A total of 333 accidents were found, mostly originating from stationary facilities such as chemical plants or industrial sites. Nearly one-third of the incidents involved an acutely toxic chemical release. There was a significant increase in the frequency of incidents over time, with a record number of incidents occurring in the 1980-89 period. Earlier decades were characterized by ammunition and natural gas explosions resulting in numerous fatalities and injuries, but very few evacuations. Later decades show more acutely toxic releases, fewer fatalities, more injuries, and more evacuation events with larger numbers of evacuees. The majority of evacuation events, however, involved between 1,000-6,000 evacuees. The historical context of chemical hazards is important and more instructive than simple case studies in furthering our understanding of chemical hazards and evacuation responses.