What are Hazardous Material Spills?

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

This lesson discusses hazardous material spills. We will describe the many types of spills that can happen, examine examples of each, and identify the dangers they pose. In addition, we'll cover what you should do if you encounter a spill.

Everyday Spills

Everyone spills something now and then; coffee onto our laps, water onto our keyboards, juice onto the floor. Barring frying the computer or burning our laps, these spills are really not that troublesome. However, some spills can pose life-threatening dangers. These are the hazardous materials spills. You're about to find out what they are and why they pose such a danger.

Hazardous Materials Spills

Hazardous materials are those that pose a danger to ourselves and/or our environment. They include chemical, radiological, and biological agents. Some of them may be dangerous if touched or inhaled or eaten. Others, like radiological spills, may pose a danger by simply being near the spill as the radiation spreads out in all directions. You don't even have to eat, smell, touch, or drink this stuff to be negatively affected by it.

You may be wondering why you should be concerned about hazardous materials contaminating the environment. So long as they don't hurt you, who cares, right? Well, the problem is that these materials can leech into our food supply, affecting food stuffs such as fish. When you eat those fish, some of these contaminants (like heavy metals) can cause significant health problems.

Spills may occur in a lab manufacturing chemicals or in a nuclear power facility. Sometimes they occur on the road when large trucks transporting these materials overturn. Trains carrying hazardous material can derail, spilling their contents.

Let's meet Rob, an expert in containing hazardous materials spills. He's seen numerous spills during his career. Rob mentions the various spills he's taken care of over the years:

  • Corrosive liquids like acids, which can cause severe burns
  • Explosives such as black powder, which can obviously blow us up
  • Flammable compounds, like gasoline, which can set us and buildings on fire
  • Toxic substances such as mercury, ones that can severely damage our health
  • Biological organisms like HIV infected specimens (HIV is the virus that causes AIDS)
  • Radiological material, such as nuclear waste from a local nuclear power plant. Yes, it helps to power our homes but the waste is extremely dangerous to our health and can lead to cancer.

What to Do

If you see a hazardous material spill of any kind, leave the area immediately until it is controlled by well-trained personnel. Make sure to inform everyone around you about this spill and warn people heading toward the area of a spill to stop and turn around. Call emergency services immediately so they can take care of the spill as soon as possible.

A hazardous material team practicing spill cleanup.
Hazmat Team

Hazardous material teams will come to the area to contain the danger. Depending on the kind of spill in question, they may use absorbents to soak up the spill, chemical neutralizers to render it harmless, or disinfectants to kill any dangerous microbes. The hazardous material will then be placed in specialized bags and containers to be disposed of as necessary.

Lesson Summary

Hopefully, you'll never come across a hazardous material spill. At the very least, you now know there's a wide variety of potentially dangerous substances that can hurt you in many ways. Hazardous materials are those that pose a danger to humans and/or the environment.

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