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Chemical Fires Are Specialty of Orange Doctor

Times Staff Writer

Dr. Philip Edelman’s white Volvo doesn’t look much like the boxy vans of the Orange County Fire Department’s Hazardous Materials (HAZMAT) fleet. There is no wide, orange stripe around the sedan, no flashing lights or siren as it speeds toward a chemical spill or a fire in a fertilizer plant such as the one last weekend in Anaheim.

“I don’t know why I haven’t ever been stopped,” he said in an interview, adding that traffic congestion around the locations of many such incidents poses a greater impediment than the California Highway Patrol.

It may be because he seems to know where he is going. As in a standard HAZMAT vehicle, there is a small computer in the 33-year-old physician’s trunk that enables him to link up with the data banks at the Environmental Protection Agency, the Library of Congress and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health in Washington. Trying to figure out exactly what has been spilled or what is burning, and how it is likely to affect those living in the area, is a large part of what he does.

“I can guarantee that never before in history was there a fire exactly like Anaheim,” with precisely the same variables of chemical mixtures, fire temperatures, wind conditions and residential patterns, he said.

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This has been a busy week for Edelman, who was very much in evidence at the emergency command post in Anaheim until Wednesday. On that day, he and several other disaster experts were flown to Riverside County to advise fire and medical officials in Thermal on how to handle a fertilizer fire that produced a toxic cloud and forced the evacuation of several thousand people in that area.

“It’s important for the public to realize that we don’t know a lot about how to react to a specific situation,” he said, especially in the first minutes and hours. “We look at all the information and extrapolate,” he said, “but it’s not a perfect process.”

When not wearing the hat of the Health Department’s special adviser to the HAZMAT team, or that of medical director of the regional poison center at the UCI Medical Center, Edelman practices medicine in Orange, specializing in emergency toxicology.

But it is when the fourth frequency on his beeper sounds its short, rapid tones to signal an emergency situation--something that happens with increasing frequency in Orange County--that the doctor draws on all of his educational and clinical experience: an undergraduate degree in chemistry from Colgate University, medical school at State University of New York in Brooklyn, post-graduate training in pharmacology, general surgery, anesthesiology and emergency medicine, two years of occupational medicine at UC Irvine and a post-doctoral fellowship at USC.

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Can’t Keep Up With Chemicals

Still, he said, “it’s phenomenally difficult” to keep up with all the new chemical compounds.

“People think that because you’re a toxicologist, you know everything about chemicals. . . . Basically, you get to know the 50 common chemicals that cause 50% of the problems.”

After a long pause, Edelman said the risk of a toxic disaster in Orange County on the scale of that which took place in Bhopal, India, causing thousands of deaths, is “remote.”

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Chemical mishaps have become more frequent in the county, he said, in large part because of the closing of the BKK toxic-materials dump in West Covina. Most of the accidents take place at small facilities such as the Larry Fricker Co. in Anaheim, or while chemicals are being dumped illegally or transported out of the county.

“One reason we didn’t have a Bhophal (in Anaheim) was because we had fire people who were well-trained to handle a situation like this.”

If there was a “stroke of luck” to the Anaheim fire, Edelman said, “it was that one of the responding fire captains had been through the HAZMAT training program.”

Usually, he said, the first instinct of a firefighter is to “knock down” a blaze and douse it with water--a method that could touch off a chemical reaction and produce a toxic cloud.

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“Had they acted differently,” he said of the first firefighters on the scene, “they may have had significant loss of life.”

‘Public Needs to Know’

In the case of a toxic incident, Edelman said that he believes “the public needs to know how much data we have” in deciding when and for how long to evacuate an area.

As he indicated at Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy’s press conference in Anaheim, Edelman said that before such an incident occurs, “the public has a right to know what substances are stored in their neighborhood.”

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Edelman said, however, that he prefers zoning restrictions to public disclosure requirements.

“The problem with these ordinances is that you do have a concern that companies don’t like to disclose proprietary information.” In the case of certain computer technology, which is highly competitive, he said, “If you know what chemicals they store and they use, you’d know their product.”

Edelman said that, while he still carries his computer around, he uses it less than he used to since he experimented with several “dispersion models” of the way toxic fumes could be expected to spread.

“A lot of that turned out to be a bunch of crap,” he said.

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“You can’t base human welfare on an equation.”


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