Three days after the earthquake, in the first of two posts for The Pump Handle, a well-regarded public health blog, award-winning investigative science journalist Elizabeth Grossman highlighted the specter of fallout beyond alpha particles and gamma rays:
With the horrifying wreckage of devastated homes, buildings, vehicles, boats, crops, airports, and factories, come ruptured fuel and sewer lines. The Japanese news service NHK is reporting more than 46,000 buildings damaged. In the black smoke and ash billowing from burning homes will be hazardous chemical residue from plastics, heavy metals, insulation, and upholstery foams. This adds to the potential health hazards of the biological debris.
Grossman went on to cite articles in the trade publications Chemical Week and ICIS.com that covered fires and other disruptions at some the many petrochemical plants along Japan’s coastline. In her second post, she followed-up with more links, reporting that:
Precise details are now just emerging, but a March 14 story in EE Times, a publication that covers the electronics engineering industry, also reports damage to automotive plants as well as power outages and aftershocks that are affecting operations further from the disaster’s epicenter. Among the plants affected is a Texas Instruments fabricator in Miho that suffered major damage to its “infrastructure systems for delivering chemicals, gases, water and air.” A Canon plant in Utsunomiya that makes specialized lenses “suffered extensive damage,” reports The New York Times.
Although oil refineries and chemical plants may be the obvious sources of potentially hazardous chemical releases, it’s important to remember that silicon wafer and semiconductor production involves use of numerous hazardous chemicals, including flammable and corrosive gases. Even under normal operating conditions, use and storage of these materials poses risks that must be addressed.
Indeed. One has only to recall the September 11 attacks as reminder that a lot of nasty, dangerous stuff starts floating around when buildings and other infrastructure are destroyed—and it doesn’t have to be radioactive to be troublesome. Reporters should remember that as they continue to cover the clean-up efforts in Japan.