I suppose that’s true for lots of boys, and probably for the same reason as Jackson’s. Fire engines are red, fire trucks are red, and fire wagons are red. Jackson doesn’t play with model cars, he plays with model ladder trucks and model pumpers and model fire chiefs’ vehicles. He has his career path all planned. First, he becomes a regular fireman, and then he learns to drive each different vehicle in turn, and finally he’s going to become a chief, and direct teams of brave firefighters saving the lives and property of those victimized by fire. And me, more than ten times older than Jackson, I understand.

I’ve cleaned hose, rolled hose, and folded hose. I learned that they are “smoke ejectors”, not just ‘darned big portable fans’. More than just a volunteer firefighter, I also spent time as a corporate emergency responder, learning to stay calm in moon suits and SCBA, so as not to suck down too much air too fast. I’ve strapped people on stretchers and carried the lower end down multiple flights of stairs. Yes, there can be adrenaline involved, but at least for me, the feeling of helping people and making the world a better place was more important. I may not cure AIDS or eliminate the guinea worm, but I like to think I’m on the plus side of the ledger for my small contributions.

The hazards that I faced as an emergency responder were real, hazards for which some measures of amelioration were possible. When there were fine particles of organic dust in the air, we took steps that prevented a ‘sawdust’ or ‘silo’ explosion. When flammable liquids were out of their containment, we picked foams that wouldn’t be degraded, and then applied those foams over those liquids and prevented fires. When a truck load of lead-acid batteries overturned, cracking some of the “non-spillable” cases, we could neutralize the spill and minimize the danger. People were evacuated when there were a lot of toxic vapors (gases) in the air, which protected their health. And, of course, water sprayed onto and into a burning residence usually prevented the adjoining residences from catching fire too. Yes, it was rewarding to actually be able to do something to help make the world a slightly safer place.

Nowadays, at the beginning of the classes I teach, I usually show a few slides of real life incidents to show why classifying, packaging, and hazard communication are worthwhile pursuits. If students believe the regulations were developed for common sense reasons, they’re more likely to pay attention, remember them, and comply with them. One of my slides is of a rail car hanging off a bridge over the Sacramento River. The product that leaked into the river and killed lots of aquatic life downstream was unregulated at that time. Now, however, that product is regulated as an Environmentally Hazardous Substance (EHS) because it’s an aquatic pollutant. Hallelujah!

So, now, if that product were to spill again, in the exact same manner at the exact same place, we would know that bad things were about to happen, and so we would, we would…, we would do what? Well, obviously, we’d notify HazMat spill teams, and we would call the environmental regulation officials, and chemists would be consulted, and so on. And the net result would be nothing. The product doesn’t float, so we couldn’t skim it off the river. We can’t precipitate it, flocculate it, nor neutralize it. We’d do just what was done last time, monitor its progress downstream and watch it wreak its havoc all the way down and out to the ocean. So, I’m starting to wonder why we regulated it.

What about other EHS’s, though? Do we think that a Class 9 EHS will be placed in packaging so sturdy that it won’t ever get out? That a Class 9 rail car won’t leak when derailed of the edge of a railroad bridge? Do we believe that when an entire ship goes down or aground that a Class 9 hold will retain an EHS when a non-regulated hold wouldn’t? If a 40-foot cargo container gets overboard in a ship channel, how will we react differently to the EHS inside than we would have reacted before we regulated that EHS? It doesn’t seem that we’re regulating EHS’s because of our faith in increased packaging.

Okay then, let’s assume that a Class 9 EHS isn’t any less likely to stay contained during a rollover, derailment, or ship-sinking than the petrol, diesel, or gasoline fuel is likely to stay contained. What have we gained by the EHS designation on the container and on the paperwork? Do we respond any more rapidly, efficiently, or thoroughly knowing there’s an EHS present that we do if just the also environmentally hazardous fuel has escaped? If the EHS floats, we’ll skim it off with the floating fuel regardless of whether we classed it as an EHS or not. And if the EHS dissolves or sinks, there’s rarely ever anything we can do to lessen the environmental impact. It seems as though we aren’t getting any extra aquatic protection for classing products as EHS.

Well then, maybe the regulations requiring us to identify Class 9 EHS’s are helpful when the spill isn’t directly into water. Maybe there’s some benefit then. Well, I doubt it. In the olden days when I was young enough for the HazMat spill team, we always tried to keep every spill, hazmat or not, DG or not, from reaching a waterway. A transportation assignment of a product to Class 9 wouldn’t have changed our pre-existing desire to protect both salt and fresh water, and earth and soil as well. Of course, if the spill is in a warehouse, onto a dock, or at a freight-handling terminal, there’s no excessive risk to humans and/or property, else the product would already have been regulated in Classes 1 through 8.

I don’t mean to bite the hand that feeds me, as I do make money re-evaluating the transport classifications of materials that might be Marine Pollutants and EHS, but as I’m becoming more aware of the scope of this type of work, and of the millions (including testing and data generation) that are being spent on it, I wonder if it’s worth it. We can generally improve a situation involving Class 1 – 8, and even some Class 9’s, either by preventing release, or by prompt, appropriate release response. But with Class 9 EHS’s, we generally get neither significantly improved containment nor improvement in release response. So, I’m wondering, why do we regulate them?

I really liked it when I thought my work in my chosen career of DG made a difference. Just as my nephew loves red because he, too, plans to make a positive impact on the world. Hopefully, he doesn’t get side-tracked by well-intentioned but ultimately fruitless regulations.

Written 03/30/2012 for HCB Magazine