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Perspectives in Disease Prevention and Health Promotion In-Transit Chemical Spill -- West Virginia

On October 14, 1985, a truck was transporting a 1-ton cylinder containing 2,000 pounds of antimony pentachloride from a production plant in Kentucky to a disposal site in New Jersey. At approximately 9 p.m., while the truck was parked at a company truck terminal in Wood County, West Virginia, a member of the county rescue squad noticed a liquid chemical leaking from the front of the trailer. The spill consisted of approximately 1,000 pounds of antimony pentachloride, which came from the tank's defective relief valve and valve seat. Antimony pentachloride reacts with atmospheric moisture to form hydrochloric acid.

Emergency-response efforts included simultaneous containment and evacuation. Soda ash, bicarbonate of soda, sand, and a trench were used to limit the ground spread of the liquid spill. Access to the leaking tank was obtained by using a backhoe to tear one side out of the trailer. The leak was plugged at 2:16 a.m., October 15, when a piece of wood dowel was put in the 1/8-inch-diameter hole. Police used public-address systems to notify the residents and roadblocks to control traffic. Approximately 500-600 residents were evacuated from their homes.

Area hospitals reported 12 people in the area were treated for a variety of ailments, including one chemical burn, dizziness, throat and stomach pains, and burning sensations. The chemical-burn victim was a member of the emergency-response team. None of the cases were reported to be serious.

This event provided an opportunity to identify communication weaknesses in the Wood County Emergency Plan. Because of the diversity of organized involvement in the community and the newness of the system, many officials were never contacted. The Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department (MOVHD) is assisting in strengthening these organizational links. MOVHD is currently gathering and summarizing all available data relating to this event. This information will help MOVHD assist in establishing criteria for an effective emergency plan for the six counties it serves. Reported by L Burtis, Mid-Ohio Valley Health Dept, LE Haddy, MS, State Epidemiologist, West Virginia State Dept of Health; Office of Health Assessment, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, U.S. Public Health Service; Div of Environmental Hazards and Health Effects, Center for Environmental Health, CDC.

Editorial Note

Editorial Note: Unintentional releases of hazardous materials occur throughout the United States and have potentially serious public health impacts. Approximately 25% of all releases occur when materials are being transported; 75% occur during their production, storage, or usage within plants (1). From 1971 to 1981, over 108,000 hazardous-material events occurred on public roads in the United States (2). Of these, 860 (0.8%) occurred in West Virginia. In-transit releases of hazardous materials occurred most frequently in Pennsylvania (11,961), Ohio (8,198), and Illinois (5,318).

The public health effects can be minimized with efficient emergency preparation and response. Hazardous-material events demonstrate the importance of ensuring that contingency plans are in place and the component activities are coordinated throughout the response. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) are responsible for providing consultation on the development and implementation of contingency plans and for providing, as needed, on-scene coordination in emergency situations. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) or CDC can assist in the development of the health components of these plans. EPA and USCG, as well as designated state and local emergency-response officials, depend on the emergency-response capabilities of ATSDR or CDC to help assess the potential health risks resulting from emergency events. The Emergency Response Coordinators of ATSDR are available to provide immediate health consultation 24 hours a day; telephone: FTS 236-4100 or commercial (404) 452-4100 (days), and FTS 236-2888 or commercial (404) 329-2888 (nights and weekends).


  1. Industrial Economics Incorporated. Acute hazardous events database draft report. Washington, D.C.: The Office of Policy Analysis, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 1985 (unpublished).

  2. Jossi DA. Data from the Department of Transportation's Hazardous Materials Information System. Washington, D.C.: Wilson Hill Associates, 1982.

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