Hazardous Materials, Chemical Spills & Radiation

Two individuals wearing HAZMAT suits during a drill.

We use hazardous materials in our homes and businesses every day. Small spills occasionally occur, but these incidents generally cause the public little difficulty other than traffic delays. In the event of a major spill, authorities will instruct you on the best course of action; however, you should heed the precautions listed below.

For domestic incidents, you can consult the Poison Control hotline at 1-212-POISONS (1-212-764-7667), visit NYC's Poison Control Center, contact 311 (212-639-9675 for Video Relay Service, or TTY: 212-504-4115).

What to Do During a Hazardous Material Incident or Chemical Spill

  • Move away from the potential hazardous substance.
  • Stay upwind of the material if possible.
  • Seek medical attention as soon as possible if needed.
  • If there's an event indoors, try to get out of the building without passing through the contaminated area. Otherwise, it may be better to move as far away from the event as possible and shelter in place.
  • If exposed, remove outer layer of clothes, place them far away from your body, and wash yourself.
  • In some circumstances, after being exposed to hazardous materials, it may be necessary to be "decontaminated." Specially trained emergency personnel will perform decontamination procedures, which may include the removal of personal items and cleansing of exposed areas of the body. They will provide for medical attention if necessary.

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Radiation Emergencies

Where Does Ionizing Radiation Come From?

  • Ionizing radiation comes from both natural and manmade sources. Exposure to very low levels of ionizing radiation is not harmful.
    • Natural sources of ionizing radiation include cosmic and solar radiation from outer space, terrestrial/earth radiation (e.g., radon gas), and some building materials (e.g., granite and brick). Natural sources usually produce very low levels of ionizing radiation.
    • Radioactive materials are also used in ordinary manmade objects (e.g., smoke detectors) and certain industries (e.g., medical and energy). Materials of certain types and quantities are kept secure and regulated by the appropriate state or federal agency.
  • Every day, we are exposed to low levels of “background” radiation, which is a mix of radiation from certain natural and manmade sources.
  • Some radioactive materials also can be used in certain weapons, such as Radiological Dispersal Devices (“dirty bombs”) and nuclear weapons. The likelihood of one of these occurring in/near New York City is very low.

Know the Terms

Radiological Dispersal Device

  • A radiological dispersal device (RDD), also known as a “dirty bomb,” is a combination of conventional explosives, such as dynamite, with radioactive materials, possibly in the form of powder or pellets.
  • RDDs are *NOT* capable of producing a nuclear explosion.
  • When an RDD explodes, the blast carries radioactive material into the surrounding area and onto surfaces such as streets, cars, roofs, and people.
  • The main danger from an RDD is the explosion, which can cause injuries and property damage. The radioactive materials used in a dirty bomb would probably not create enough radiation to cause immediate serious illness, except to those who are very close to the blast site.
  • The likelihood of an RDD incident occurring in/near New York City is very low.

Nuclear Weapon or Improvised Explosive Device

  • A nuclear weapon uses a nuclear reaction to create an explosion. An improvised nuclear device (IND) is an illicit nuclear weapon bought, stolen, or otherwise originating from a nuclear state (country).
  • Nuclear explosions release massive amounts of energy derived from the splitting (fission) of special radioactive materials, such as Uranium-235 or Plutonium-239. The explosion results in a blinding flash of light, a blast wave, intense heat, and radiation.
  • Nuclear explosions also produce fallout (radioactive debris that may resemble sand or ash that can be carried long distances by the wind). Fallout can be immediately dangerous to people in its path and may not settle to the ground for several hours in some areas.
  • The likelihood of a nuclear weapon incident occurring in/near New York City is very low.

What to Do During a Radiation Emergency

Get Inside

  • Dirty bomb: If you are outside and near the incident, quickly go into a building where the walls and windows are not damaged. Close windows and doors. Stay there until instructed by emergency officials it is safe to leave.
  • Nuclear weapon: Immediately go deep inside a building. Move to the basement or center/core of a large building, putting as many walls as possible between you and the outside. Expect to stay indoors for at least 72 hours, and possibly longer in some areas. Do NOT go outside until emergency responders tell you it is safe. If conditions become unsafe inside the building, leave and immediately relocate to another building.
  • Stay clear of downed power lines.
    • Special note: Fallout may take a few hours to arrive, depending on your location: Go inside even if you are not near the explosion.

Stay Inside

  • Stay inside a building until instructed by emergency officials that it is safe to leave. If conditions become unsafe in the building, leave and relocate to another building. Vehicles do not provide adequate protection.
  • Radioactive material can settle like dust on your clothing, your body, and other objects. If you are concerned about contamination because you or your family were near the affected area:
    • Remove your clothing, place it in a plastic bag, and seal with tape. Place this bag in another larger plastic bag and seal or tie shut. Put this bag away from your living area or outside of your house or apartment.
    • Take a warm shower (but do not scrub your skin), wash your hair (but don't use conditioner because the radioactive particles may bind to your hair), and change into clean clothes.

Tune in

  • Follow media for more information. The City uses several forms of media to alert the public in an emergency, including Notify NYC, the City of New York's official emergency communications program.

What the City Does

  • Following an explosion, NYPD and FDNY will be on scene to provide care to people in need. If emergency personnel detect a potential release of radioactive material, they will use specialized equipment to determine how much radiation is present and will coordinate with the City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) to assess if there is any danger in your area.
  • The City uses several forms of media to alert the public in an emergency, including Notify NYC, the City’s official emergency communications program. If there is a potential hazard in your neighborhood, Notify NYC will be one of primary methods used to alert the public.
  • If you were outside and near the explosion of a dirty bomb, you may need to have your skin, hair, or clothing checked for radiation. New York City may open community reception centers to check the public for radioactivity. Information on the locations of these centers will be provided.

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