Chemical spills: A burning issue

When it comes to disasters of any kind involving chemicals, the federal government is probably the best source of information.

Two agencies, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, have jointly developed a system to help public safety agencies deal with the thousands of chemicals that can harm people or the environment.

The Computer-Aided Management of Emergency Operations (CAMEO) program provides information about 6,000 chemicals and 80,000 chemical synonyms and identification numbers so people faced with a chemical spill can figure out exactly what they are dealing with.

The information available through CAMEO allows first responders to access recommendations on how to respond to a spill, the physical properties of chemicals, health hazards and how to administer first aid. The program also provides case histories of past events and information on how the chemical may react with other chemicals that may be present.

The free software, which includes modules for electronic mapping and gas-dispersion modeling, was developed in 1985 and has been downloaded by about 7,000 installations, said Robert Pavia, an environmental scientist in NOAA's Hazardous Materials and Assessment Response Division. A new version of the software is expected this month.

NOAA and EPA officials are meeting with Justice Department leaders to discuss how CAMEO could be applied to homeland security, he said.

CAMEO's modules can help first responders predict, say, how a chemical cloud might spread over a region using the air-dispersion system, which graphically plots the plume over a map. The map also shows other vital information such as locations of facilities that store hazardous materials, hospitals, schools and day care centers. The hours of operation and contacts for each facility also are shown.

Officials at NOAA and the EPA are considering a number of enhancements, such as improving access to the information via handheld devices, Pavia said. Eventually, they also might make real-time advice from experts — such as weather forecasters or chemical specialists — available through CAMEO.

Beyond helping with an actual event, the program helps public safety officials develop their expertise so they will know how to respond to future incidents, Pavia said. The software can be used for training and testing purposes as well.

However, because CAMEO is publicly and broadly available, people might use the information in the package as a textbook for planning terrorist attacks. "There's a balance there," he said. "You have to balance the public benefit against the risk. But that's part of our discussions."

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