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Thetford plastics fire, October 1991: the role of a preventive medical team in chemical incidents.
  1. P J Baxter,
  2. B J Heap,
  3. M G Rowland,
  4. V S Murray
  1. University of Cambridge Clinical School, Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge.


    OBJECTIVES--To review the role of a medical team in the emergency management of a major polyvinyl chloride (PVC) fire in an urban area. METHODS--The district health authority's consultant in communicable disease control (CCDC) was requested to advise on the health impacts of a fire that consumed some 1000 tonnes of plastic, mainly PVC, over 72 hours and which emitted a large smoke plume that threatened the health of local residents and emergency workers alike, constituting one of the largest incidents the local emergency services had dealt with in recent years. A medical team was formed comprising the CCDC, a regional epidemiologist, an occupational physician, and a medical toxicologist. This paper is an account of this team's experience of advising on the medical management of the emergency without having any formally established role or previous training for the task. RESULTS--The main issues requiring the input of the medical team included: the possible products of combustion and their effects on health; the clinical management of those exposed; the alerting of local hospitals to the type of casualties to expect; the special health risks posed to emergency workers, especially the firemen; the need for evacuation of local residents; the risks of contamination of soil, water, and crops; the potential health impact of the plume; and the provision of expert and authoritative advice on the short and long term health implications to the public. Active surveillance systems, which included the local general practitioners and hospitals, were established and air monitoring instigated. The 46 casualties were restricted to emergency personnel who had inadvertently received exposure to the fire smoke: all recovered within 48 hours. Local residents were unharmed. CONCLUSION--The incident showed the need for preventive medical teams trained to fill a formal advisory and investigative role for chemical releases and fires, and which can play an integral part in emergency management.

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