18 January 1999 00:00 [Source: ICB Americas]By Glenn Hess
"Significant worldwide chemical safety problems" are possible if equipment malfunctions related to Year 2000 computer glitches are not properly addressed, warns the Intergovernmental Forum on Chemical Safety.
In its first international advisory, the IFCS says "relevant available information should be shared regarding steps which have been taken and which should be taken, and contingency plans developed to reduce the potential adverse impacts to health and safety" from the Year 2000 (Y2K) problem.
The IFCS was created to oversee implementation of the chemical management provisions that evolved from the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
IFCS says measures should be taken to prevent computer failures from triggering chemical accidents, and governments and groups addressing the problem should prepare for chemical safety problems and develop manual override systems.
"It is too late for some important systems and organizations to completely resolve the problem before the deadlines. Available skilled personnel and financial resources are not sufficient," the advisory warns.
"In the chemical manufacturing area, much has already been done by governments and industry, but there are gaps, most particularly in small- and medium-sized companies, and governments."
IFCS cites a number of dangers including the complete failure of safety-related systems, malfunctions by embedded microprocessors, and potential failures to respond properly to program instructions.
Several types of "date problems" in computer equipment are likely over the next few years, including computers that are programmed incorrectly. Another potential problem is that millenial years are not leap years and many computers are programmed to recognize 2000 as a leap year, according to the IFCS.
The Y2K problem stems from the inability of many computers to recognize four-digit years in date-related functions. Many computers recognize years only by their last two digits and will be unable to differentiate between 1900 and 2000.
Fixing Y2K problems is "technically complicated and costly," the advisory notes. Much effort should be directed toward identifying problems in "embedded systems which include alarm systems, computer mother boards, system controls, lighting controls, process controllers, pumps, refrigeration controls and valves," the IFCS says.
Lois Epstein, senior engineer with the Environmental Defense Fund, says chemical safety concerns are mostly related to potential malfunctions of monitoring devices. "Those are embedded chip problems," she says, noting that many chemical sensors have a date function in them that could be disrupted by Y2K-related malfunctions.
"Computer chips are embedded in many operations of modern life, including power plants, power lines, and drinking water and wastewater treatment plants. Some of these facilities may fail if businesses and governments do not identify potential Y2K problems and test their solutions," Ms. Epstein says.
"Drinking water may be contaminated because of incorrect automated lab tests and, more seriously, chemical plants or pipelines can have costly and fatal accidents from abnormally high pressures or temperatures."
Ms. Epstein adds that on the positive side, "facilities using dangerous chemicals can take advantage of their search for Y2K problems to implement measures that promote safety, including reducing the use of dangerous chemicals and reducing process pressures and temperatures."
EDF recommends that Environmental Protection Agency and state and local permitting agencies consider making Y2K compliance a condition of environmental permit renewal for the near future.
For the latest chemical news, data and analysis that directly impacts your business sign up for a free trial to ICIS news - the breaking online news service for the global chemical industry.
Get the facts and analysis behind the headlines from our market leading weekly magazine: sign up to a free trial to ICIS Chemical Business.
Asian Chemical Connections