What is the Risk?
The health of individual New Yorkers is at risk from chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear releases. However, if releases occurred on a very large scale, many more people and even New York City’s infrastructure, operations, and the natural environment would be at risk.
CBRN releases could potentially compromise the safety and health of anyone who resides in, works in, or visits New York City. Specific impacts will vary according to the type of material released, the geographic area affected, and the demographics of the population within that geographic area.
Long-term isolation of affected areas of New York City could trigger additional consequences, and societal disruptions. CBRN releases will create mental-health consequences for large segments of New Yorkers, even if the physical impact of the CBRN release was not particularly severe.
Chemical releases can compromise the health and safety of residents and visitors to New York City—a place where 8.6 million residents occupy 305 square miles. Because New York City’s population density is uniformly high compared to other places in the United States, many people here are at risk if there is a large scale release. However, population density does vary across the five boroughs. People in New York City who are at highest risk are emergency responders, who may be exposed in the line of duty, and anyone living or working in close proximity to sites storing hazardous materials.
Release of toxic chemicals containing carcinogens, corrosives, or other agents, may affect a person’s lungs or blood. Toxic chemicals pose other physical hazards when they are flammable, combustible, explosive, or reactive. If water, air, soil, or ground water is contaminated by toxic chemicals, potential consequences include injuries, long-term illnesses, other health hazards, and death.
A large number of New Yorkers live near waterfront areas. Residential communities near waterfront industrial areas -- such as the South Bronx, Red Hook, Sunset Park, Newtown Creek, and the North Shore of Staten Island -- are often low-income with high concentrations of minority populations, as shown on the maps below. Consequently, equity issues are coupled with health, environmental, and commercial concerns in these areas.
For example, when a coastal storm threatens these industrial waterfront areas, if businesses have not properly stored or secured their hazardous substances, these nearby populations are vulnerable to the consequences of a chemical release.
People with asthma and other pre-existing health conditions are at elevated risk from a chemical release, especially choking agents that irritate the lungs. The Bronx has one of the highest asthma rates in the whole of the United States, with up to 20 percent of children in some neighborhoods living with asthma.
Densely populated residential areas, crowded business districts, and tourist attractions are at increased risk from biological hazards due to closer human contact and the potential for increased rates of transmission.
Senior citizens, young children, persons with mobility impairments, and individuals with pre-existing medical conditions or weakened immune systems are at heightened risk if they are exposed to biological hazards. (For more information on vulnerable populations, see New York City's Hazard Environment).
New York City’s entire population is potentially at risk from radiological hazards. Radiological hazards can effect anyone in close proximity to an incident in which they attain high contamination levels resulting in relatively high radiation doses. Incidents such as a dirty bomb can cause such contamination levels in addition to inflicting trauma. Other effects include aerosolization of the radioactive material resulting in the potential inhalation of this airborne material. Once internalized, the material delivers a dose to organs dependent on the principles of biokinetics.
Children are generally more sensitive to internalized radioactivity because their organs are smaller; thus, there can be greater energy deposition per unit mass (the definition of radiation dose) in children than in adults. For example, a child’s thyroid gland is more sensitive to radioactive iodine than an adult’s. The medical end point here is the greater risk of developing thyroid cancer. In general, women exposed to significant radiation doses are at slightly greater but distinct risk of developing cancer than men exposed to the same dose. The fetus is also sensitive to radiation dose, mostly between the 2nd and 5th week from conception. Damage appears to occur only at doses exceeding 5 rad.
A nuclear release from the Indian Point Power Plant, the nuclear facility closest to New York City, is not expected to expose New York City residents to harmful radiation unless an extremely large amount is released combined with a very unique and rare set of meteorological conditions (wind direction and atmospheric stability).
Nuclear incidents, such as the detonation of a nuclear device, could impact any person who resides in, works in, or is visiting New York City.
Chemical releases can cause significant contamination and property damage, rendering a site unusable or necessitating a costly clean-up for the property’s owner.
Corrosive chemicals have the potential to damage building materials and infrastructure. Vapors from spilled materials can collect in houses and businesses, creating health impacts, fires, and explosions. An incident could shut down or destroy public and private transportation infrastructure causing massive transportation delays and ultimately impact the supply chain of food and other goods into New York City.
The dispersion of chemicals into residences and work locations contaminates porous surfaces, rendering them unusable, and subject to removal and regulated disposal. Tainted surfaces can off-gas, emitting chemicals and creating a hazardous atmosphere in the immediate vicinity.
Biological hazards are an inherent danger to living organisms but generally do not pose a significant threat to the built environment.
The most significant impacts from the explosion of a radiological dispersal device (RDD), or dirty bomb, are the impact of the explosion and the spread of contamination which may be widespread.
Structures in New York City including streets, sidewalks, hydrants, and street and traffic lamps – or otherwise located in the contaminated zone – would require decontamination or removal, if decontamination is deemed to be infeasible.
New York City’s entire built environment could suffer severe damage from a nuclear blast or detonation. The extent of the damage would depend on the magnitude and location of the weapon and the subsequent fallout pattern but it is expected to be the most catastrophic of all the CBRN hazards. The combination of major power and transit losses and the high number of fatalities would devastate the city and its ability to respond and rebuild.
Chemical releases can contaminate soil and underground water systems and eventually discharge into nearby bodies of water. In New York City, this risk includes, but is not limited to, such important waterbodies as the Hudson River, East River, Long Island Sound, Harlem River, Jamaica Bay, New York Harbor, Gowanus Canal, and Newtown Creek.
Certain chemicals may be toxic to many species of plants, animals, and invertebrates. Uncontained spills, especially those that impact surface water, can kill or injure plants, fish, and wildlife and cause damage to their habitat and food sources. After a hazardous chemical release, the remediation of the natural environment poses unique challenges and is often lengthy and costly.
If released into the natural environment, petroleum can smother, impede, and poison plants and wildlife. Due to the sheer amount of petroleum products used on a day-to-day basis, petroleum is responsible for more environmental damage and injuries than industrial and household chemicals.
Biological releases in New York City could also be devastating to plants and animals. Since different microorganisms and pathogens affect different hosts, the severity of impacts depends upon the type of biological material released.
A significant biological release has the potential to cause the same type of wide-ranging impacts that would result from a significant chemical release.
Exposure to significant doses of radiation damages cells and living tissues in plants and animals. Overall risks include genetic defects in species that reproduce rapidly (for example, insects) and death from acute radiation syndrome for those exposed to high levels in short time periods. Radiation-induced deaths in animals can occur at different exposure levels compared to humans.
Radioactivity released into the environment could enter the food chain and ultimately contaminate the human food supply. As an example, if radioactive iodine is released from a nuclear power plant in sufficient quantities, it may settle on grazing lands, accumulate over time in a cow’s milk, and affect people – particularly children – that drink the milk. In the event of such an emergency, New York City and State officials may restrict the movement of food products from farms thus preventing them from reaching the market place.
RDDs may spread an isotope over an area a few miles wide and long depending on bomb type and local meteorology. The contamination may persist for years if the half-life of the radioactivity is months or years long. If not decontaminated, long lived radio-elements like Cesium-137 (half-life of 5. Years) will seep into soils or run-off into sewers with sufficient rainfall. Eventually, the material will reach rivers and could be transferred to biota. Though it may be detectable in marine tissue, it is likely that dilution of the radioactivity in the city sewer system and later, the natural marine environment, will keep water concentrations low. This can keep bioaccumulation of radioactivity low but measurements are necessary to confirm.
Other releases associated with traffic accidents resulting in the release of medical isotopes will result in a street level clean-up. Most of these isotopes have relatively short half-lives with beneficial consequences for human health: even if they enter the sewers for example, they may diminish in activity to insignificant levels within days, weeks, or months.
Nuclear Power Plants
Nuclear power plant releases pose similar threats to the natural environment as described above for radiological releases, although the extent of the environmental contamination is much greater because the releases are expected to be larger and into higher levels of the atmospheric. This includes short half-life Iodine-131 and longer half-life Cs-137 both of which can be released in a plume. The areas involved may be tens to hundreds of square miles in extent. Again, this scenario is unlikely to affect New York City because of the distance between Indian Point and New York City.
Improvised Nuclear Device
The long-term effects of improvised nuclear devices (nuclear weapons or INDs) to the natural world are caused by fallout which brings radioactive material in fallout into contact with land and marine biota. Fallout decays rapidly due to the fission products that make it up. Eventually, the longer lived radioactivity is left comprised of Cs-137 and Strontium isotopes. However, these can bioaccumulate after entering the food chain. The transfer to man is possible and the resulting internal dose is dependent on the amount of radioactive material ingested. This dose would be delivered over a lifetime if the contaminated food were continuously ingested, despite clearance by biokinetics and radioactive decay.
 Half-life is the amount of time required for radioactivity (in disintegrations per unit time) to decrease by one half. Cs-137 is considered a long lived nuclide with a half-life of 30.2 years. In another 30.2 years, half of the remaining half will be gone. It will take 302 years for the activity to decrease to one-thousandth of the original activity. By comparison, most short-lived isotopes used in medical procedures have half-lives ranging from seconds to days.
A review of current trends may shed light on anticipated changes regarding chemical, biological, radiation, and nuclear releases.
Heavy industry, including petroleum production and storage facilities, have mostly moved out of New York City during the past 50 years and will continue to do so. Tighter regulations, the cost of real estate, labor expenses, and shifts in business strategy have caused many of these businesses to relocate. Although New York City’s industrial footprint has shrunk, many remaining small businesses and large facilities (airports, electrical production and delivery systems, fueling facilities, sewage treatment plants, etc.) still use and store chemicals and petroleum products in bulk.
New York City has seen a recent increase in the number of new energy storage systems, which each have varying amounts of chemical storage. Alternative Energy, Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG), Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) and Hydrogen fuel cells are proliferating in New York City. In addition, there has also been an increase in drug manufacturing that uses chemicals in the city. This includes illicit drug labs, pill production, and other new additions like Fentanyl and Carfentanyl. These trends potentially pose a risk to the environment, public health, and emergency responders.
The widespread use of chemical weapons in Syria and Iraq has familiarized a large number of hostile actors with their creation and use. The internet and social media make access to recipes and development of dispersal, explosive and exposure devices more readily available to lone actors or self-motivated individuals. The 2018 Novichok assassination in England demonstrated the willingness of hostile states to engage in chemical weapons use, though local threats can be as concerning as State-sponsored acts.
In the future, shifts in population density and distribution could affect the number of people in New York City at risk from biological hazards as well as the transmission rate of a given pathogen.
Advances in medical technology has the potential to introduce new threats to NYC’s populations. For more information see [link to biological hazard profile from DOHMH].
The future risk of radiological releases will depend on the degree to which the need for and use of these types of materials in research, medicine, industrial applications, and power generation grows or is replaced by alternate technical solutions. An example is the nation-wide replacement of Cobalt-60 teletherapy machines by linear accelerators in hospitals – a transfer largely if not totally completed. A current example is the gradual replacement of Cesium-137 blood irradiators located in NYC with tube-based X-ray type blood irradiators.
Although use of radioactive materials in pharmaceutical and some biomedical research has been undergoing a long-term decline in many locations around the nation, research using radioactivity including short half-lived Positron Emission Tomography (PET) isotopes continues in some NYC hospitals. The transportation of medical isotopes, particularly short-lived Iodine-131, is a daily occurrence. Truck amounts can reach 1 Curie (a significant amount) per hospital delivery. The use of isotopes in research – particularly long lived isotopes – creates radioactive waste consisting of lab-ware such as beakers, stirrers, sample tubes, gloves, and occasionally equipment. Therefore, the transport of this low-level radioactive waste to repositories will be required for the foreseeable future.
Wide-spread law-enforcement surveillance for the purposes of interdiction of illicitly gained radioactive materials, made possible by the regional Secure the Cities (STC) program, is an on-going program designed to reduce the risk of illicit use of radioactive material.
New York City’s future level of risk from accidental nuclear releases is already regarded as quite low. Going forward it will depend, at least in part, on trends in power generation. The cheaper cost of natural gas for power generation has already forced some nuclear power plants in the US to close. The Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant has fallen to these same pressures. The two operating reactors at the plant are scheduled to cease operations in 2020 and 2021. A lengthy decommissioning process will then begin. The low-level radioactive waste from used fuel is expected to remain on site in dry cask storage – a robust means of long-term control. Given the nature of the waste, the risk to NYC is expected to be less than the risk from current plant operations.
New York City will continue to be subject to large-scale nuclear weapons threats and terrorist activity. The availability of nuclear weapons materials may ebb and flow with the viability of the international nuclear security regime and its complex components, such as the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty as overseen by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The treaty and its policies, together with the affected entities, are extremely vulnerable to international politics, funding, and other pressures. Changes in the future could increase the risk. An example is the potential dissolution of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty between the US and Russia. Other nuclear weapons treaties are also being reviewed, the dissolution of which could induce another arms race. That constitutes a national increased risk to nuclear weapons that affects the NYC due to the city’s importance to the nation. In addition, an arms race puts more weapons grade nuclear materials into “circulation” where, without vigilant materials accounting and inventory control, it can be diverted for terrorist purposes. The increase in the number of nuclear weapons also increases the risk of accidental launch or detonation. Either may have immediate consequences that could escalate the incident into a nuclear exchange.
Similarly, the capability of international terrorist groups changes over time. Surveillance of domestic and international terrorist groups is on-going by NYPD and its federal partners. Though this monitoring and the readiness of the NYPD and local FBI has likely reduced the terrorist risk to the city, these capabilities must be maintained into the future and where necessary improved in order for law enforcement to interdict or else prepare for an incident.