Intentional or accidental large-scale airborne toxic releases (e.g. terrorist attacks or industrial accidents) can cause severe harm to nearby communities. As part of an emergency response plan, shelter-in-place (SIP) can be an effective response option, especially in situations when evacuation is infeasible. Reasonably tight building envelopes provide protection against exposure to peak concentrations when toxic release passes over an area. However, this protection is temporary because some toxic materials will be carried into buildings by the exchange of air between outdoors and indoors. Prompt termination of shelter-in-place after the outdoor plume has passed is also required to minimize the exposure of the occupants.
The purpose of this work is to quantify the level of protection offered by existing houses, and the importance of sorption/desorption to and from surfaces on the effectiveness of SIP. We examined a hypothetical chlorine gas release scenario simulated by the National Atmospheric Release Advisory Center (NARAC). We used a standard infiltration model to calculate the distribution of time dependent infiltration rates within each census tract. Large variation in the air tightness of dwellings means some houses are more protective than others. Considering only the median air tightness, model results showed that if sheltered indoors, the total population intake of non-sorbing toxic gas is only 50% of the outdoor level 4 hours from the start of the release. Based on a sorption/desorption model by Karlsson and Huber (1996), we calculated that the sorption process would further lower the total intake of the population by an additional 50%. The potential benefit of SIP can be considerably higher if the comparison is made in terms of health effects because of the non-linear acute effect dose-response curve of many chemical warfare agents and toxic industrial substances.