What is Chemical Decontamination?

Vasanth S.

Chemical decontamination is an integral part of managing and cleaning up a chemical spill. It is also used to treat individuals who are exposed to chemical agents. Usually, chemical dilution and chemical inactivation are the methods used in a chemical decontamination procedure. In addition to preventing further harm to the patient, chemical decontamination cleans an environment exposed to a harmful chemical and renders it safe.

Workers involved with chemical decontaminations wear specialized suits to protect them from hazardous materials.
Workers involved with chemical decontaminations wear specialized suits to protect them from hazardous materials.

Workers who are involved with chemical decontamination wear specialized clothing to protect them from the hazardous materials they handle. Most emergency preparedness plans and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidelines require the use of personal protective equipment such as suits and respirators that resist chemicals. Workers must be trained to safely use respirators. This equipment protects the worker from chemical splashes and fumes.

It is important to identify the chemicals involved in a particular incident so that response teams are adequately protected. Usually, response teams use detectors to identify the chemical agent they will encounter. This allows the response team to identify the level of contamination and wear the corresponding equipment.

There are generally three levels of contamination, each requiring a specific set of equipment. Level A is the most serious type of chemical decontamination event, requiring a fully encapsulated, or full protection, suit with chemical resistance. This suit generally has its own complete breathing device attached. Level B equipment typically includes a full-face mask for breathing and a chemically resistant suit. The least serious contamination event is designated Level C, which requires resistant clothing and an air-purifying breathing device.

The decontamination of an area usually involves chemical dilution, in which large amounts of water are flushed forcefully onto surfaces that are contaminated. Adding soap to the water aids in removing certain types of chemicals that are oil-based. Chemical dilution is also used to treat individuals exposed to chemicals. This usually involves a pressure shower to rinse the chemical from the skin or an eye flush to treat eye exposure.

Chemical inactivation is another method used to decontaminate an area. It involves using bleach and water to neutralize a particular chemical. This is usually the method used to decontaminate an area exposed to biological agents as well.

Both chemical dilution and inactivation require the use of pressure hoses, sprays, and physical scrubbing to be effective. Response teams usually set up decontamination showers and rinse stations to treat individuals exposed to a chemical. The quicker the chemical exposure is treated, the less likely it is for injuries to be severe. Clothing worn by patients involved in the chemical accident must be handled with caution and stored in the proper containment vessels. Also, exposure to runoff water from decontamination areas should be avoided.

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