Tuesday, September 10, 2013

US chemical safety data almost always wrong: Study

Chemical accidents can lead to
chemical exposure  and adverse
health effects.
Chemical exposure can be serious, but currently there is no way to keep track of accidents and spills, a study shows.

Even the best national data on chemical accidents is wrong nine times out of 10.

A Dallas Morning News analysis of more than 750,000 federal records found pervasive inaccuracies and holes in data on chemical accidents, such as the one in West that killed 15 people and injured more than 300.

In fact, no one at any level of government knows how often serious chemical accidents occur each year in the United States. And there is no plan in place for federal agencies to gather more accurate information.

As a result, the kind of data sharing ordered by President Barack Obama in response to West is unlikely to improve the government’s ability to answer even the most basic questions about chemical safety.

After the West explosion in April, The News asked a simple question: How often do serious or potentially serious industrial chemical accidents occur in Texas and nationwide? After scouring the four federal databases with the most comprehensive information available on chemical safety, The News concluded that there was no way to know.

For a recent four-year period, the paper managed to confirm at least 24 industrial chemical accidents in Texas that resulted in deaths, injuries or evacuations. But the poor data quality guarantees that number does not account for all accidents. Nor was it possible to make a meaningful comparison with other states that would lend important context to the safety picture in Texas.

Large data systems have inherent problems with accuracy — an issue that experts caution will only worsen in an era when huge amounts of electronic data are being collected. Even so, government investigators and researchers have been warning for at least 25 years about the problems with chemical accident data. The News found report after report that said chemical accident data were insufficient to spot even basic accident patterns and suggest solutions.

What’s needed, experts say, is an overhaul of the data-collection process or the expansion of an existing pilot program that has labored under years of inadequate funding.

One agency focused on chemical accidents

Only one agency collects nationally comprehensive information specifically on chemical accidents. The U.S. Coast Guard’s National Response Center receives reports of chemical spills and other accidents from companies, emergency responders and the general public.

But the NRC data is no more than a call log, like a 911 hotline for environmental emergencies, and first reports often turn out to be wrong. Following up those initial reports to update the data and record what actually happened is not part of the center’s mission.

Government reports citing serious problems with chemical safety data go back to at least the 1980s. That’s when an accidental release of methyl isocyanate from a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, killed more than 5,000 people.

The 1984 disaster spurred the Environmental Protection Agency to attempt to create a chemical accident database. The effort began in 1985. But researchers quickly found that many serious chemical accidents never came to the attention of any federal agency. By 1989, funding for the project had ended.

The chemical industry had started self-reporting on incidents, but many chemical companies strongly oppose publicly releasing their accident data.

This article has been edited for length. Source: The Dallas Morning News

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