NMU Site of Hazmat Exercise

It could have been a distressing sight for anyone who didn't get the memo and happened to walk by the New Science Facility one sunny June afternoon. A class of NMU students barreled out a door and collapsed on the grass. They were gasping for air, coughing and trying to soothe their burning eyes as emergency crews set up a decontamination unit in the parking lot. Fortunately, it was only a training exercise.


The U.P. Regional Response Team approached Northern about the possibility of staging a simulated chemical spill on campus. It was an opportunity for the organization to test out some of the equipment it has acquired over the past four years through Homeland Security funding. The hazardous materials identified as the culprits in this exercise were nitric acid and sulphuric acid.


"We played out the scenario that a student was attempting to mix these chemicals and dropped the beakers before he got to the fume hood," said graduate assistant Alex Larson (pictured left), who helped facilitate the role-playing in Dave Erickson's (Chemistry) laboratory. "If those two really did combine in that way, it would result in a big gas of the worst acids known to man. It would attack the respiratory system and mucus membranes. And if you inhaled too much at once, your lungs would be impacted. The ph level of your blood would go down and if it went below six, you would be unconscious."


Larson said there is little chance of such an accident becoming a reality at Northern because students do not have access to dangerous concentrations of chemicals. He also said they receive a full rundown of safety precautions at the beginning of each semester. One is to do all chemical mixing in the fume hood, a special ventilation system that allows materials to be combined safely.


As Ken Chant (Public Safety and Police Services) observed the training exercise, he explained what Northern's initial role would be in a disaster of this nature.


"Two of our people would be the first to respond inside the building, which means they would also need decontamination at this point," he said. "We would shut down the air-handling system in the building, rope off the scene, start the investigation, and block the intersections leading to New Science to keep people away until the situation was under control."


As students were led through the decontamination tent, UPRRT members suited up in white, chemical-protective clothing ventured inside the building (pictured right). The response team was assisted by area EMS and fire departments. Most of the NMU participants were students recruited from a class that meets in New Science. A few theater majors also took advantage of the role-playing opportunity.


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Updated: October 26, 2005

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