Nuclear, chemical, and biological hazard symbols
by the US Army Medical Department
Tompkins County has experienced HAZMAT (HAZardous MATerials) incidents in the past. Luckily, they were not wide-spread or long-term. A recent example was the chemical spill in the Center for Natural Sciences building on Ithaca College's campus. This was a spill of a certain chemical in a science lab, and was quickly contained, with no serious health impacts. Other HAZMAT incidents that are more common are highway incidents: tankers or other trucks overturning, spilling their contents.
A "hazardous material" can be anything from toxic waste and industrial chemicals to household cleansers and air fresheners. Batteries that have not been disposed of properly, radioactive elements in hospitals, and even gasoline, natural gas, or other fuels all can be considered hazardous materials -- if they're not properly contained!
Tompkins County has several risk factors for hazardous materials. Cornell University, Ithaca College, and Tompkins Cortland Community College all have science laboratories which contain potentially harmful chemicals. Manufacturing or industrial facilities, like Borg-Warner or Emerson Power Transmission, can cause HAZMAT incidents if containment facilities fail (and in fact, recent pollution questions surfacing around Emerson Power Transmission's facility could be considered a HAZMAT incident). Transportation corridors such as routes 13, 17, 79, 89, and 96 can present a danger of truck accidents and spills. Even road construction crews accidentally hitting a natural gas pipeline can cause a HAZMAT incident.
Your own personal risk is determined by some major factors:
National Disaster Education Coalition - Guide to HAZMAT incident safety and preparedness.
American Red Cross - advice on chemical emergencies.
FEMA - list of resources regarding hazardous materials incidents.