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Community exposures to chemical incidents: development and evaluation of the first environmental public health surveillance system in Europe

Abstract

OBJECTIVE To describe the frequency, nature and location of acute chemical incidents in Wales, and the morbidity in employees, emergency responders and the general public who were exposed.

DESIGN Active multi-agency community-based surveillance system.

SETTING Wales, 1993–5.

MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES Frequency, nature and location of incidents, populations potentially exposed and with symptoms.

RESULTS Most of the 402 incidents identified were not associated with sites governed by the Control of Industrial Major Accident Hazard Regulations but with smaller industrial sites and commercial premises. About two in every thousand of the estimated 236 000 members of the public considered to be at risk from exposure reported symptoms, which were mainly nausea, headaches, and irritation of the eye, skin and respiratory tract. The most commonly reported chemicals that members of the public were exposed to were smoke toxins, miscellaneous organics, toxic gases and flammable gases. A health authority was reported to be involved in only 34 (8%) of the incidents and in only 3 of the 29 incidents where more than 100 members of the public were exposed.

CONCLUSION A geographically defined, multi-agency surveillance system can identify high risk locations and types of incidents, together with the chemicals most likely to be involved. Such ongoing surveillance information is essential for appropriate policy making, emergency planning, operational management and training.

  • surveillance
  • pollution
  • chemical

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