Chemical Emergencies


Chemicals are an important part of modern life, and used in the production of nearly everything we see, touch and eat.  Large quantities of chemicals are manufactured, processed and transported safely through Lambton County everyday by pipeline, road and rail.  Although regulations are in place to keep workers and residents safe, spills and releases of chemicals and toxic substances do occur.  Have you considered what you might have to do in the event of an accidental chemical spill or toxic vapour release?  Would you know what to do if you were advised to take shelter or evacuate?  Keep reading to learn how to keep you and your family safe and informed during a chemical incident.

If you ever notice unusual activity at an industry site such as loud noises, alarms, training activities, high flaring, etc., call the CAER Industry Update Line (1-855-4SARNIA or 1-855-472-7642) to hear current information.  There are several ways the public will be notified of a chemical incident that are explained below.


When an incident involves the release of dangerous chemicals, emergency officials often advise residents within a specified area to go indoors and stay indoors.

That is because in a chemical release, it’s often safer for people to remain inside than trying to leave by walking or driving out of the affected area and exposing themselves to dangerous chemicals in the air.

If you are advised by emergency officials to go indoors during a chemical emergency (often referred to as “Shelter-in-Place”), please stay inside for your own protection.  Most buildings will seal well enough to hold sufficient air to last several hours – often long enough for vapours in the air to dissipate.

Municipal/Industrial Sirens

In the event of an emergency, safety sirens located in portions of Sarnia, St. Clair, Point Edward and Aamjiwnaang First Nation will sound to alert residents.  If you hear the sirens, go indoors and tune to a local radio station for information and instructions.

My Community Notification Network

An alert will also be sent to residents and businesses in the affected area through My Community Notification Network (MyCNN).  MyCNN subscribers receive alerts how they have chosen – by phone, email, text or cell phone (or all those methods).  Landline telephones listed in public directories will receive a telephone call, but public directories are not always complete so, if you are not a MyCNN subscriber, or do not have a publicly-listed telephone number, you will not receive MyCNN alerts.  To ensure your best chance of being notified during an emergency, please consider subscribing to MyCNN.

Steps to Take When Sheltering During a Chemical Emergency or Release

  • Close and lock all windows and exterior doors (locking doors and windows may help them seal better).
  • Turn off heating and air-conditioning systems that draw air from the outside (keep the outside air out, and the inside air in!).
  • Use duct or other wide tape to seal cracks around doors and any vents into the room (using plastic sheeting may create an even better seal – see the diagram to the right).
  • Close fireplace dampers, if applicable.
  • Get your emergency supplies kit, make sure the radio is working and keep it on to obtain information and instructions.
  • Go to an interior room that’s above ground level (if possible, one without windows).  In a chemical release, an above-ground location is preferable because some chemicals are heavier than air, and may seep into basements even if the windows are closed.
  • Listen to instructions given over the radio – CHOK 1070 AM / 103.9 FM
  • You may also call the CAER Industry Update Line (1-855-4SARNIA or 1-855-472-7642) to hear current information about non-routine industry activity such as unusual noises, alarms, training activities, high flaring and industrial incidents.
  • Continue to monitor your radio until you are told all is safe, or you are advised to evacuate.  Local officials might call for the evacuation of specific areas in your community that are at greatest risk.  Responders or municipal officials will advise when it is safe to go outside.
  • Don’t forget to bring pets indoors too!

Shelter-in -lace during a chemical emergency

Schools & Day Cares

Shelter-in-Place during chemical emergencies during school hoursDuring a “Shelter-In-Place” or “Evacuation” advisory, schools and day cares within the affected area will initiate their own internal response procedures.  If the hazard involves a chemical emergency or release, it is imperative that you ensure your family’s safety by remaining out of the affected area or taking shelter, if necessary.  If your child is in school, do not pick them up – it is best they remain there.  All schools have procedures to deal with emergency situations like these.  Listen to your radio for information.  Do not call the school – allow them to keep their telephone lines open.

Be sure that your child’s school has up-to-date contact information about how to reach you or a caregiver to arrange for pickup if school buses are not running.  Find out ahead of time what type of authorization the school requires to release a child to a designate, if you cannot collect your child yourself.

The above information has been adapted from guidelines prepared by Public Safety & Emergency Preparedness Canada and is intended to provide you with assistance in formulating a home emergency response plan.

DO NOT evacuate unless you are instructed to do so by radio or by emergency personnel.  REMEMBER, in a chemical emergency involving a spill or vapour release, it is often safer to remain indoors where you have protection from toxic air outside.


The Mississauga Train Derailment – The largest evacuation in Canadian history

Evacuation during a chemical emergencyOn the night of November 10, 1979, a 106-car freight train derailed in Mississauga, Ontario.  When one of the tank cars carrying propane exploded and threatened to rupture other tank cars carrying chlorine, the decision was made by municipal officials to evacuate nearly 218,000 residents in one of the largest peacetime evacuations due to a chemical emergency in history (Photo: deserted streets of Mississauga).

If local authorities advise you to leave your home due to a chemical emergency, it means there is a potential or existing threat to your safety, so please take their advice immediately.  An evacuation is often initiated when it is more dangerous to stay in place, than it is to leave.  The threat could be a fire or a potential explosion.  Listen to your radio and follow the instructions of local emergency or municipal officials, keeping these simple tips in mind:

  • Wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants and sturdy shoes so you can be protected as much as possible.
  • Take your emergency supplies kit.
  • Take your pets with you – do not leave them behind.  (Most evacuation centres will try to accommodate pets, but it is best to make plans ahead of time and find other lodging for them.)
  • Lock your home.
  • Collect family members or go to the place designated in your family plan as a meeting place.
  • Use travel routes specified by local authorities.  Don’t use shortcuts – certain areas may be impassable or dangerous.
  • Stay away from downed power lines.
  • If you go to an evacuation centre, sign up at the registration desk so you can be contacted or reunited with family and friends looking for you.
  • Contact your out-of-area emergency contact to let them know what has happened, that you are okay, and how to contact you.
  • Listen to your radio (1070 AM/103.9 FM) for the most accurate information about your area.  Remaining on one station is the best way to monitor for information.
  • Leave natural gas service ‘on’ unless local officials advise you otherwise.  You might need gas for heating and cooking when you return, and you will need to contact your utility company to reconnect appliances or restore gas service in your home once it’s been turned off.  In a disaster situation, it could take weeks for someone to respond to turn your gas back on.
  • If instructed to so do, shut off water and electricity before leaving.
  • Sign up to receive MyCNN alerts on your mobile devices.

To learn more about personal safety and what to do during a chemical emergency, you can also read the CAER Personal Action Guide.


trainProducts and materials of all types are transported by rail across North America, including dangerous goods such as crude oil and hazardous chemicals.  Transport Canada has regulations and standards in place to help ensure that Canada’s rail system is safe, secure and environmentally responsible.  To learn more about Canada’s rail system, visit the Transport Canada website .

As members of the public, we’re also responsible for ensuring our own safety around trains and tracks.  Visit the Operation Lifesaver website to learn more about responsible behaviour around railways.

Below are some rail facts and safety tips from CN Rail

Because of their size, trains appear to be much further away and traveling much slower than their actual speed.  Don’t be fooled!

The average train needs at least 2 km (1.25 miles) to stop.  Trains can stop, but they can’t stop quickly!

Taking a shortcut across the tracks, riding ATVs or dirtbikes, or being on railway property is illegal and trespassers can be seriously injured or killed.

An average freight train weighs over 5,500 tonnes (12 million lbs.). Compare that to a car, which weighs about 1.5 tonne (3,000 lbs.).  A train hitting a car is like a car hitting a pop can!

Stopped railway cars can move at any time.  If you’re on one or near one when it moves, you could lose a limb or worse, your life.

Tunnels, bridges, and trestles are only designed for trains.  Trespassers can be seriously injured or killed.

Trains can carry loads that are wider than the railroad cars themselves.  They can have chains, straps, or other equipment that may extend outside the car. If you are standing too close, you could get hit.

Trains do not always run on a schedule.  They can run at any time, on any track and come from either direction.


Petrolia refinery stills
Oil refinery stills – Petrolia, 1886.  Robert Bell / Library and Archives Canada

Canada had one of the world’s first oil pipelines when one was constructed in 1862 to connect the Petrolia oilfield to Sarnia.  Pipelines continue to be relied upon to move large quantities of crude oil and refined petroleum products across North America.  Pipelines in Canada transport 1.2 billion barrels of product each year.

Although pipelines are a proven means of safely transporting petroleum products, pipeline leaks do happen.

The Warning Signs Of A Potential Leak

If you are near a pipeline right-of-way and you see or hear any of the following, it could indicate a leak:

• A whistling, hissing or roaring sound coming from the ground.
• A smell of petroleum could indicate an oil leak and the smell of rotten eggs could indicate a natural gas leak.
• Dead or dying vegetation over or near a pipeline in a normally green area.
• A build-up of frost on the ground or pools of liquid.
• Water bubbling or blowing into the air at a pond, creek or river.
• Dirt being thrown or blown into the air.
• Vapour or mist clouds not associated with fog.

Protecting Yourself In An Emergency

If you notice any of the warning signs listed above:

• Leave the area immediately.  If possible, walk into the wind for at least 750 metres and advise others to clear the area.
• Move to a safe location and call 911.
• If you can, call the pipeline company – look for pipeline right of way and warning signs for emergency call numbers.
• Warn others to stay away.

Safety Precautions Near Pipelines

Registered pipelines are located within strips of land called “right of ways” (ROWs) that allow pipeline companies to do work on their lines, and also to keep the area clear of certain activities and development.  Pipeline companies don’t own the land within a ROW.

rghtfwy-eng (2)Ownership remains with the landowner, but there are restrictions on the type of work landowners can do within, or even near a ROW.  Those “safety zones” are intended to protect pipelines from damage or ruptures caused by excavations or construction.

Damage caused by third party excavation around pipelines is one of the most common causes of leaks and explosions on transmission pipelines in Canada.  Even a small nick in the protective coating of a pipeline can result in corrosion of the line and eventual failure or a need for repair, years later.

Never assume that there is only one pipeline within a ROW, or that a pipeline is in the centre of the ROW.  Pipeline companies often share ROWs and pipelines can be located anywhere within a ROW at varying depths.

By law, anyone doing construction or excavation work on their property must obtain utility locates.  For your safety and the safety of others, “Call Before You Dig” to mark the location of gas, hydro, cable, and other underground utilities before starting construction, landscaping or any other excavation project on your property.  If there is a pipeline ROW where you intend to work, contact the pipeline company before doing any work on site.  Once your underground lines have been marked, you will know the approximate location of utility lines and can dig safely.

If you have plans for construction or excavation, contact Ontario One Call at 1-800-400-2255 or visit the Ontario One Call website .


Sarnia and St. Clair Township host a number of major petrochemical industries and refineries that work together to develop common safety and chemical emergency response protocols to keep workers and residents safe.  Nearly 50 industries, contractors, businesses and municipalities (including the County of Lambton) are members of a mutual aid organization known as CVECO, or the Chemical Valley Emergency Coordinating Organization.

The Sarnia Area Disaster Simulation is conducted annually to test CVECO protocols in case of a chemcial emergency.

CVECO had its origins in 1951, following a major explosion at the former Polysar industrial site.  Drawn by curiosity and a lack of awareness of the potential danger, a large number of spectators arrived to watch the event.  Local industries realized that they needed to work with Sarnia Police to keep the public out of harm’s way during industrial emergencies.  The “Chemical Valley Emergency Traffic Control Committee” was formed as a result.

Also formed in 1951 was the Chemical Valley “Industrial Mutual Fire Aid” Organization.  Its founding members were the City of Sarnia Fire Department and companies that had their own fire departments.  This is believed to be the first industrial mutual aid organization in Ontario.

The traffic control and mutual aid organizations continued as separate entities for twenty years until 1971, when they amalgamated under one body – The Chemical Valley Emergency Control Organization.  CVECO’s “second C” was changed to  “Coordinating” rather than “Control” in the 1980’s.


On the night of December 2/3, 1984, 500,000 people were exposed to toxic vapours released from the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India. The deadly vapours entered the shanty towns surrounding the plant, ultimately killing and injuring hundreds of thousands of people. The catastrophe showed the world, the importance of community preparation for a chemical emergency. Early in 1985, the Lambton Industrial Society developed a community awareness program for residents living in proximity to petrochemical companies and oil refining industries.

In 1986, the new Sarnia-Lambton CAER organization (Community Awareness / Emergency Response) was formed. Sarnia became one of the first three municipalities in Canada to be awarded the CAER Achievement Award by the Canadian Chemical Producers Association, signifying integrated industrial-community preparedness for an emergency.

The CAER Industry Update Line provides Lambton County residents with a 24-hour number they can call to hear current information about non-routine industry activity such as unusual noises, alarms, training activities, high flaring and industrial incidents.

The Industry Update Line number is 1-855-4-SARNIA (1-855-472-7642).


1489 London Road, Suite 107,
Sarnia, ON  N7S 1P6
519-332-2010 (08:00-16:30) 

Community Members

CVECO has grown to include more than fifty government, industry, utility and business groups.  The County of Lambton’s Emergency Management, Emergency Medical Services and Community Health Services Departments have long been active on a number of CVECO and CAER committees.  Other community members include the City of Sarnia, Township of St. Clair, Village of Point Edward and Aamjiwnaang First Nation.

CAER has provided funding for the area’s municipal/industrial sirens, the My Community Notification Network (MyCNN) public alerting system and the annual Emergency Preparedness Day event.  The CAER Board, comprised of industry and municipal leaders, meets quarterly to discuss and address any community issues relating to petrochemical and refining operations.