Protecting Emergency Responders

In an emergency such as an accidental chemical release, the usual rules for IH practice don’t apply. There isn’t time to measure exposures, analyze the results, and communicate guidance to employees, emergency responders, and the surrounding community. In such a situation, responders need immediate access to guidelines that can help them take appropriate action to protect themselves and others.

For years, both EPA and AIHA produced such guidelines. EPA developed the acute exposure guideline levels, or AEGLs, which describe the human health effects from once-in-a-lifetime exposure to airborne chemicals. New and updated AEGLs were published each year by the National Academies Press. AIHA’s contributions were the emergency response planning guidelines, or ERPGs. The ERPGs are air concentration guidelines for single exposures to agents and are intended for use in assessing accident prevention and emergency response plans. Like the AEGLs, the ERPGs were updated annually. Currently, the AIHA Guideline Foundation oversees the ERPGs. In recent years, due to budget cuts at EPA, responsibility for updating the AEGLs shifted to the National Research Council, a committee of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Information about AEGLs still appears on the National Academies and EPA websites, but the AEGLs haven’t been updated since 2015. This means that the ERPGs are the only up-to-date airborne levels for risk assessment of a single brief exposure to chemicals. 
The ERPGs are the only up-to-date airborne levels for risk assessment of a single brief exposure to chemicals.
KATHLEEN S. MURPHY, CIH, is AIHA president and director of Global Regulatory Affairs at Sherwin Williams in Cleveland, Ohio.

THE THREE LEVELS The Guideline Foundation publishes the ERPGs each year in a spiral-bound handbook that includes background information and explanations for use. Each chemical has three values, designated as ERPG-1, ERPG-2, and ERPG-3. These three levels indicate thresholds below which nearly all individuals could be exposed for up to one hour without experiencing certain health effects. Concentrations that exceed ERPG-3 values for longer than one hour may cause life-threatening health effects. The handbook also provides lower explosive limit (LEL) warnings, where applicable, to alert emergency responders that an explosion hazard may exist in addition to toxicity hazards. The task of updating ERPGs and developing new guidelines falls to the Guideline Foundation’s Emergency Response Planning Committee, a group of 23 dedicated volunteers who have backgrounds in inhalation toxicology. The committee recently welcomed four new members who responded to AIHA’s call for applications earlier this year. Each committee member typically reviews the literature on a chemical, determines the robustness and relevance of each source, and presents findings at the committee’s annual meeting. After lively (and occasionally intense) discussion, the committee votes on whether to propose a new ERPG value or change an existing value. Notices of intended changes are then published in The Synergist and posted to Catalyst. AIHA members and other interested parties may then submit comments on the proposed values for the committee’s consideration. Once the committee has addressed all comments, it will vote again on whether to approve the new values. SUPPORT THE GUIDELINE FOUNDATION Submitting comments on proposed values isn’t the only way that interested observers can get involved. The committee welcomes suggestions of chemicals that may need ERPG values. If you’d like to nominate an agent for consideration by the ERP Committee, download the form (.docx). Please note that the process of producing an ERPG can take a couple of years. For more information, visit the AIHA website. As the only regularly updated guidelines for emergency responders, the ERPGs fulfill a crucial role. Maintaining these essential resources is vitally important to emergency responders and to the communities who could be affected by accidental chemical releases. Unfortunately, maintaining the ERPGs requires significant time and money, and the Guideline Foundation needs support to defray these expenses. Please consider asking your company to make a donation to support literature searches, document retrievals, and the ERP Committee’s annual meetings. For more information on donations, email Laura Cilano Garcia or call (703) 846-0748.