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Unintentional Methyl Bromide Gas Release -- Florida, 1988

At approximately 11 a.m. on November 30, 1988, a tractor-trailer truck carrying 32 cylinders of a gaseous toxic pesticide (methyl bromide, 98%, and chloropicrin, 2%) overturned on an unpaved road in a rural area of Collier County, Florida. One of the cylinders, filled to an unknown level but containing no more than 1500 pounds of pressurized gas (the maximum capacity of the cylinder), was punctured during the incident and released toxic gas into the atmosphere.

At the time of the incident, wind speeds varied between 5 and 10 miles per hour and came primarily from the northeast. The 53 emergency responders included personnel from the Collier County Sheriff's Department, a county ambulance service, local fire departments, and the Florida State Patrol. Firefighters used protective equipment, including self-contained breathing apparatus; the other responders had no protective equipment. The Collier County Sheriff's Department initiated a voluntary evacuation by visiting every house in a 10-square-mile area; this area contained approximately 50 households with an estimated population of 130-140 persons. Risk of exposure was declared over at 7 p.m.

Nine emergency responders (none of whom were firefighters) and one local resident were treated at a community hospital for symptoms associated with exposure to the gas. Of these, six were hospitalized for a total of 17 person-days. Symptoms included nausea, vomiting, difficulty breathing, headache, dizziness, burning throat, coughing, and chest tightness. The primary route of exposure was inhalation only for seven patients, dermal only for two, and both dermal and inhalation for one patient. Although the driver was pinned in the truck for at least 1 hour, he tested negative for methyl bromide exposure--probably as a consequence of protection afforded by the cab and by the cab's location upwind of the spill. The local resident, a 19-year-old woman who resided approximately two blocks southwest of the overturned vehicle, was most likely exposed by gas drift. All patients recovered without neurologic sequelae. Reported by: J Polkowski, MD, MS Crowley, MS, AM Moore, HRS Collier County Public Health Unit, RA Calder, MD, State Epidemiologist, Florida Dept of Health and Rehabilitative Svcs. Div of Health Studies, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Div of Environmental Hazards and Health Effects, Center for Environmental Health and Injury Control, CDC.

Editorial Note

Editorial Note: Methyl bromide gas, used primarily as an agricultural fumigant for nematodes, is a severe pulmonary irritant and neurotoxin. The major symptoms reported in this incident are consistent with previously reported symptoms (1). Renal tubule damage and pulmonary edema have been reported in fatalities associated with methyl bromide exposures (2).

At least three studies suggest that the public health impact of hazardous material releases is difficult to evaluate because existing databases vary in format and cannot be readily compared. For example, a review of two databases in California--one maintained by the U.S. Department of Transportation and the other by the California Highway Patrol--examined 474 and 485 hazardous materials incidents, respectively. Only 18 incidents were reported in both sources (3). In a study of three national databases, only eight (1%) of 587 acute releases of hazardous materials were common to all three systems (4). In the third study, even though 502 incidents were reported to two databases, substantial differences were noted for specific details regarding related morbidity and mortality (5).

To establish a consistent database, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) and five states (Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin) have developed a pilot Emergency Event Surveillance System to investigate selected transportation and fixed facility incidents. The objectives of this surveillance system are to 1) describe the temporal and geographic distribution of hazardous material emergencies within these five states, 2) describe the morbidity and causes of mortality experienced by employees, first responders, and the general public as a result of these incidents, 3) analyze and describe the risk factors associated with the morbidity and mortality, and 4) propose strategies to reduce subsequent morbidity and mortality in comparable events. The five state health departments plan to begin data collection from local reporting agencies in January 1990. Data will be forwarded to ATSDR, and a centralized database accessible to public health agencies of the five states will be established. This process should facilitate immediate review of potential adverse health effects that can result from exposure to specific compounds.

Adverse health effects from hazardous material releases can be minimized through the development and implementation of comprehensive contingency or preparedness plans. In particular, because emergency response workers are at substantial risk from hazardous material releases, appropriate equipment and training for these persons could prevent injury and illness. The Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act of 1986 mandates that local emergency planning committees develop preparedness plans for such events (6). ATSDR can assist in the development of the health components of these plans. Additional information is available from ATSDR's Emergency Response Branch, Division of Health Assessment and Consultation, at (404) 639-0615.


  1. NIOSH. Occupational health guideline for methyl bromide. In: Occupational health guidelines for occupational hazards. Cincinnati: US Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, CDC, 1978.

  2. Marraccini JV, Thomas GE, Ongley JP, et al. Death and injury caused by methyl bromide: an insecticide fumigant. J Forensic Sci 1983;28:GO1-7.

  3. Shaw GM, Windham GC, Leonard A, Neutra R. Characteristics of hazardous material spills from reporting systems in California. Am J Public Health 1986;76:540-3.

  4. Binder S. Deaths, injuries, and evacuations from acute hazardous materials releases. Am J Public Health 1989;79:1042-4.

  5. Office of Technology Assessment. Transportation of hazardous materials, OTA-SET-304. Washington DC: Congress of the United States, Office of Technology assessment, 1986.

  6. Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986--Pub. L. No. 99-499, Sections 301, 303, Title III, Oct. 17, 1986 (Codified in 42 U.S.C. Sections 11001, 11003 1989).

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