Abstract Background Releases of hazardous materials can cause substantial morbidity and mortality. To reduce and prevent the public health consequences (victims or evacuations) from uncontrolled or illegally released hazardous substances, a more comprehensive analysis is needed to determine risk factors for hazardous materials incidents. Methods Hazardous Substances Emergency Events Surveillance (HSEES) data from 1996 through 2001 were analyzed using bivariate and multiple logistic regression. Fixed-facility and transportation-related events were analyzed separately. Results For fixed-facility events, 2,327 (8%) resulted in at least one victim and 2,844 (10%) involved ordered evacuations. For transportation-related events, 759 (8%) resulted in at least one victim, and 405 (4%) caused evacuation orders. Fire and/or explosion were the strongest risk factors for events involving either victims or evacuations. Stratified analysis of fixed-facility events involving victims showed a strong association for acid releases in the agriculture, forestry, and fisheries industry. Chlorine releases in fixed-facility events resulted in victims and evacuations in more industry categories than any other substance. Conclusions Outreach efforts should focus on preventing and preparing for fires and explosions, acid releases in the agricultural industry, and chlorine releases in fixed facilities.