Date: Sun, 9 Nov 2008 11:23:07 -0500
Reply-To: List Moderator <ecgrants**At_Symbol_Here**UVM.EDU>
Sender: DCHAS-L Discussion List <DCHAS-L**At_Symbol_Here**LIST.UVM.EDU>
From: List Moderator <ecgrants**At_Symbol_Here**UVM.EDU>
Subject: MMWR: Hazardous Chemical Incidents in Schools --- United States,
2002Comments: To: safety**At_Symbol_Here**

November 7, 2008 / 57(44);1197-1200

Hazardous Chemical Incidents in Schools --- United States, 2002
Chemicals that can cause adverse health effects are used in many  
elementary and secondary schools (e.g., in chemistry laboratories, art  

classrooms, automotive repair areas, printing and other vocational  
shops, and facility maintenance areas) (1). Every year, unintentional  

and intentional releases of these chemicals, or related fires or  
explosions, occur in schools, causing injuries, costly cleanups, and  
lost school days (1).

The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR)  
conducts national public health surveillance of chemical incidents  
through its Hazardous Substances Emergency Events Surveillance (HSEES)  

system. To identify school-related incidents and elucidate their  
causes and consequences to highlight the need for intervention, ATSDR  

conducted an analysis of HSEES data for 2002period, 423 chemical incidents in elementary and secondary schools  
were reported by 15 participating states. Mercury was the most common  

chemical released. The analysis found that 62% of reported chemical  
incidents at elementary and secondary schools resulted from human  
error (i.e., mistakes in the use or handling of a substance), and 30%  

of incidents resulted in at least one acute injury. Proper chemical  
use and management (e.g., keeping an inventory and properly storing,  
labeling, and disposing of chemicals) is essential to protect school  
building occupants. Additional education directed at raising awareness  

of the problem and providing resources to reduce the risk is needed to  

ensure that schools are safe from unnecessary dangers posed by  
hazardous chemicals.

ATSDR established HSEES in 1990 to collect data about acute hazardous  

substances releases (2). HSEES funds state health departments through  

a competitive program announcement to collect information about  
eligible events and enter the data into a standardized, ATSDR-provided  

web-based system. Each of these states employs a state HSEES  
coordinator. Under HSEES, a substance is considered hazardous if it  
might reasonably be expected to cause adverse health effects to  
humans. The HSEES protocol defines an eligible event as an  
uncontrolled or illegal release, or threatened release, of one or more  

hazardous substances in a quantity sufficient to require removal,  
cleanup, or neutralization according to federal, state, or local law.  

However, the definition of an eligible incident varies among HSEES  
states because minimum reporting requirements vary according to state  

and local laws. State health department programs actively gather  
information for HSEES by negotiating agreements with state and local  
agencies that are notified routinely when hazardous substances  
emergencies occur. Among these agencies are police and fire  
departments, environmental agencies, and various emergency response  
offices. The states also use news reports for identifying events. In  
each state, the HSEES coordinator reviews the circumstances  
surrounding each event, including the factors that contributed to  
school-related events.

In 2002, HSEES began collecting information to identify the primary  
contributing factors associated with chemical incidents. During  
2002related chemical events. Eleven state health departments (Colorado,  
Iowa, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Texas,  

Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin) reported school-related events for  
all 6 years, and four additional state health departments reported  
events for some of those years (Mississippi: 2003, Missouri:  
During 2002incident were reported to HSEES in the 15 states. Of these, 423  
occurred in elementary and secondary schools. The annual proportion of  

all events that were school related for each state was consistent  
across the reporting period and ranged from 1% to 3%. School-related  
events most often resulted from human error (62%) (e.g., improper  
chemical storage and unsafe, improper use of materials or equipment),  

equipment failure (17%) (e.g., broken hoses, valves, or pipes), or  
intentional acts (17%) (e.g., using homemade chemical bombs [bottle  
bombs] [3] or 2-chloroacetophenone [i.e., mace or pepper spray  
pranks]) (Table 1). Among the 423 chemical incidents in elementary and  

secondary schools, 31% resulted in at least one acute injury and 52%  
resulted in an evacuation. Of the 74 incidents caused by intentional  
acts, 43% were associated with an injury.

A total of 895 persons were injured in the 423 school-related  
incidents. No injuries were fatal, but 11 persons were admitted to a  
hospital. Most injured persons received first aid on the scene, sought  

care from a private physician, or were treated at a hospital but not  
admitted. The health effects most commonly associated with the short- 
term release of carbon monoxide were nausea, dizziness, and headache.  

The release of acids and mace or pepper spray resulted primarily in  
respiratory and eye irritation. Most (86%) HSEES school incidents  
involved the release of only one chemical. Although mercury was the  
most common hazardous substance released (29%), only 2% of mercury- 
related incidents caused an injury (Table 2). Conversely, although 4%  

of releases were mace or pepper spray by students, these incidents  
were associated with a high rate of injury (86%) and evacuation (90%).  

Releases (usually spills) of hydrochloric acid, commonly found in  
chemistry classrooms, also resulted in a significant rate of injury  
(58%). Carbon monoxide releases, caused primarily from equipment  
failure in old air-conditioning and heating systems, also resulted in  

a high rate of incidents with injury (48%) and evacuation (81%).

Reported by: WA Wattigney, MStat, MF Orr, MS, GD Williamson, PhD, Div  

of Health Studies, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry; S  

Everett Jones, PhD, JD, Division of Adolescent and School Health, CDC.

Editorial Note:

During 2002reported by the 15 states participating in HSEES. The findings  
indicate that approximately 30% of chemical exposures resulted in  
acute injury. Mercury was the most commonly reported chemical  
released, but the rate of injury associated with mercury was low. This  

might be explained by the fact that HSEES captures acute health  
effects and mercury is only immediately toxic at extremely high doses,  

which would not be expected at schools. Before the dangers associated  

with mercury were fully understood, mercury was commonly used in  
thermometers, sphygmomanometers, and barometers and was used in  
science experiments in schools. Eleven states (Indiana, Illinois,  
Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode  
Island, South Carolina, and Wisconsin) have enacted legislation that  
bans or requires reduced use of mercury in schools (4). HSEES data  
indicate, however, that mercury is still present in many schools and  
spills continue to cause school lockdowns, dangerous exposures, and  
costly cleanups.

Like an earlier analysis of 1993for 2002continue to be the result of mistakes in the handling or use of a  
substance. These data suggest school staff members might benefit from  

additional training on how to use and handle hazardous chemicals to  
reduce injuries occurring at schools.

HSEES data are used to guide intervention strategies to reduce the  
occurrence of chemical incidents and subsequent injuries (2). For  
example, data from HSEES indicating that mercury is the most commonly  

reported chemical released in school chemical incidents have been used  

to actively promote the removal of mercury-containing equipment from  
schools. New York state has developed information resources to guide  
proper cleanup of mercury spills, thereby reducing the risk for  
exposure and the on-site costs associated with cleanup.* These  
resources, and others, are available to all states. The School  
Chemical and Laboratory Safety Guide,=86 from CDC, also is a valuable  

resource that provides teachers with information to prevent or  
minimize harmful exposures in high school chemistry laboratories.  
Reducing unnecessary hazardous substances in schools, along with  
proper labeling and education on the proper use of potentially  
dangerous substances, is imperative to ensure school safety.

The findings in this report are subject to at least three limitations.  

First, reporting of events to HSEES is not mandatory, and reporting  
sources vary among the states participating in HSEES. Therefore, some  

school events likely are not reported, and reporting of school events  

to HSEES might be more complete for some states than for others.  
Second, the definition of eligible events varies among states  
according to their reporting resources, state and local laws, and  
capacity to follow up on events. As such, some states might capture  
more events that are less severe (i.e., events that do not result in  
serious injury or evacuation) than others. Finally, other factors  
might result in underreporting of school chemical incidents.

CDC's School Health Policies and Programs Study 2006 found that most  
school districts in the United States had policies on how to use  
(81%), label (85%), store (88%), and dispose of (87%) hazardous  
materials (7). An even greater percentage of schools nationwide had  
plans on how to use (92%), label (90%), store (93%), and dispose of  
(93%) hazardous materials, and 78% of schools kept an inventory of  
hazardous materials (7). However, to support those policies and plans,  

school districts and schools need resources to ensure proper chemical  

management. For example, school districts need assistance in building  

their capacity to systematically inventory, remove, and manage  
potentially dangerous chemicals.

To reduce chemical misuse and improve chemical management in schools,  

the Environmental Protection Agency developed the Schools Chemical  
Cleanout Campaign and Prevention Program (SC3), a national strategy  
that incorporates models, tools, and guidance from pilot programs,  
along with building a national network of community partners to assist  

schools.=A7 Using this program, government agencies, private companies,  

and community leaders can work with schools to 1) increase awareness  
about the risks associated with chemicals in schools; 2) facilitate  
the removal of outdated, unknown, unneeded, and potentially dangerous  

chemicals; 3) prepare teachers and schools to use less dangerous  
chemicals and in smaller quantities where appropriate; and 4) provide  

inventory tools and information to better manage chemicals that cause  

safety and health concerns in schools.


1. Audi J, Gellar RJ. Chemical exposure in and out of the classroom.  
In: Frumkin H, Geller R, Rubin IL, eds. Safe and healthy school  
environments. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2006:189--204.

2. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Hazardous  
Substances Emergency Events Surveillance system. Atlanta, GA: US  
Department of Health and Human Services. Available at 

3. CDC. Homemade chemical bomb events and resulting injuries--- 
selected states, January 1996--March 2003. MMWR 2003;52:662--4.

4. Berkowitz Z, Haugh GS, Orr MF, Kaye WE. Releases of hazardous  
substances in schools: data from Hazardous Substances Emergency Events  

Surveillance system, 1993
5. US Environmental Protection Agency. State mercury school programs:  

state legislation and regulations. Available at 

6. Associated Press. Mercury spill causes scare but no danger at  
Fallon school. Nevada Appeal. February 26, 2008. Available at 

7. Everett Jones S, Axelrad R, Wattigney WA. Healthy and safe school  
environment, part II, physical school environment: results from the  
School Health Policies and Programs Study 2006. J Sch Health  

* Available at

- Available at

=A7 Additional information available at

TABLE 1. Number and percentage of chemical incidents* in elementary  
and secondary schools, associated injury, and ordered evacuation, by  
contributing factor
Hazardous Substances Emergency Events Surveillance system, 15 states,  


TABLE 2. Number and percentage of specific chemicals released in  
elementary and secondary schools, and associated injury and ordered  
evacuation, by type of chemical
Hazardous Substances Emergency Events Surveillance system, 15 states,  


Previous post   |  Top of Page   |   Next post

The content of this page reflects the personal opinion(s) of the author(s) only, not the American Chemical Society, ILPI, Safety Emporium, or any other party. Use of any information on this page is at the reader's own risk. Unauthorized reproduction of these materials is prohibited. Send questions/comments about the archive to
The maintenance and hosting of the DCHAS-L archive is provided through the generous support of Safety Emporium.