Did You Know…Poison Centers Are a Vital Part of Disaster Response?

In the event of a disaster, the Illinois Poison Center can play many roles:

  • Provide patient treatment guidelines to health care providers at their respective treatment facilities
  • Provide patient management information to on-scene emergency responders
  • Assist in antidote procurement
  • Answer calls from the general public on when to seek care for a potential exposure (triage) so as to reduce the surge of worried individuals in hospitals thereby allowing the facilities and staff to concentrate on the truly sick and injured
  • Surveillance and real-time situational awareness through the volume and monitoring of calls received by the poison center

In mid-May, the Metropolitan Chicago Healthcare Council organized a multi-hospital drill for the Metro-Chicago area.  It involved dozens of hospitals in the following scenario:

At 7:30 am CST, an unmarked white truck slows down and comes to a complete stop near a common gathering  place near the hospital.  The truck was packed with nearly a ton of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil (ANFO) and 6 pounds of a radioactive element, Cesium  137; in essence a very large dirty bomb.  The contents of the truck were detonated with the following results:

  • 250 Fatalities
  • More than 500 casualties in varying states of injury
  • More than 5,000 individuals with potentially superficial external and internal radiation contamination.  All internal contamination is assumed to be from inhalation or ingestion
  • Thousands of individuals down-wind of the blast have minor external and internal radiation contamination that will need medical follow up.

Hospitals involved in the drill called the IPC for assistance; specifically, the hospital staff was seeking information on Cesium 137

The IPC’s role in this drill was one of notification of public health authorities, triage and treatment information and antidote procurement.  In order to test some of the communications and antidote procurement aspects of the drill, the IPC:

  • Called the Radiation Emergency Assistance Center/Training Site (REAC/TS) which provides emergency information on radiation incidents 24/7 around the world.  REAC/TS opted to play in the drill and the on-call individual called Washington DC and received approval for a ‘virtual’ FEDEX delivery of 50 bottles of Radiogardase to Chicago.  This rare antidote is used to treat individuals with significant internal contamination with cesium 137.
  • Notified the Illinois Emergency Management Agency (IEMA) of the emerging disaster
  • Notified Suburban Cook County Department of Public Health
  • Notified Chicago Department of Public Health


Most people only think of a poison center as a place to call when their child has eaten half the medicine cabinet.   As part of our mission, the IPC is also a vital part of the disaster response and communications infrastructure for the state and stands ready, quietly in the background, to help protect the health of communities in Illinois when disaster strikes.  Drills like this are essential to making sure we get it right when it happens for real.

Till next Tuesday,



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