Sometimes harmful chemicals or gases escape into the air when an industrial accident occurs or emergency events happen. Those chemicals or gases can spread far into communities. Depending on the level of toxicity and length of time you were exposed to the chemical or gas, you may experience different health risks.
Examples of chemical or gas releases that can harm your health include:
Learn more about types and categories of hazardous chemicals at Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Follow guidance from on-site emergency personnel like local police, emergency coordinators, or instructions on the radio or television broadcast system.
Preparation is key. While chemical or gas releases can happen at any time, one way to prepare is to have an emergency preparedness kit and lung disease travel pack ready to go. These should be accessible if you need to shelter in place or evacuate.
If you are told to “shelter in place”:
- Stay indoors: People living close to the release areas should remain indoors and isolate to one room with the least number of windows.
- Seal windows, doors, and vents: Stay inside with doors, windows, vents, and fireplace dampers shut. Tape drafty windows, door thresholds and other draft sources. Emergency personnel may advise you to turn off all heating and cooling systems and fans.
- Take extra precautions for kids: Extra precaution should be taken for children, who are more susceptible to harm. Their lungs are still developing, and they breathe in more air (and consequently more pollution) per pound of body mass than adults.
- Listen to the radio or television for updated advice and instructions: Stay indoors until you receive the clearance from emergency personnel to resume normal activity or to evacuate.
If you are told to “evacuate”:
- Follow advice to evacuate when directed. The gases, chemicals and soot can pose life-threatening harm, sometimes blown far from the original site. Listen to public health and emergency direction to know about steps to take to protect yourself and your family.
- Don't count on a dust mask: Ordinary dust masks, designed to filter out large particles, will not help. They still allow the more dangerous smaller particles and gases to pass through. Special, more expensive dust masks with true HEPA filters or N-95 masks will filter out some damaging fine particles, but may not fit properly, won't protect against the gases and are difficult for people with lung disease to use.
- Roll up your car windows: If you are driving during a chemical or gas release, keep your windows and vents closed. Turn off air conditioner or heater.
- Finding shelter: You may be asked to leave the area immediately. Because each situation is different, emergency personnel should provide guidance on shelters located outside the area of exposure.
If You Have Lung Disease, Chronic Heart Disease or Diabetes
- Check in with your healthcare provider: People with asthma or other lung diseases, cardiovascular diseases or diabetes should check with their physician regarding any changes in medication that may be needed to cope with the dangerous conditions.
- Keep an eye on symptoms: Higher levels of gases or chemicals will make breathing more difficult. If you are experiencing symptoms, contact your physician. If you cannot, patients with asthma can follow the asthma action plan and patients with COPD can follow their COPD action plan developed with their healthcare provider. Use your peak flow meter if prescribed.
- Ask about your oxygen use: People using oxygen should not adjust their levels of intake before consulting a healthcare provider. (Call your doctor BEFORE you take any action.)
- Know when to seek medical attention: If symptoms are not relieved by the usual medicines, contact your healthcare provider. Seek medical attention if you have any of the following symptoms: wheezing, shortness of breath, difficulty taking a full breath, chest heaviness, lightheadedness, and dizziness.
- Watch for breathing issues after exposure: If you develop a persistent cough or difficult or painful breathing, call your healthcare provider. The first symptoms can appear as late as 24 to 48 hours after exposure.
Page last updated: November 17, 2022