When it comes to homeland security, it often seems better to err on the side of caution. But it’s possible to go overboard and protect ourselves from things we need.

The same principle applies to our chemical security infrastructure. As with aspirin bottles, we can’t simply “childproof” the United States against every conceivable vulnerability that terrorists could exploit. After all, chemicals are everywhere, and we need them for a vast number of purposes.

We do need some protection, though.

Tanker trucks, rail cars, ships, pipelines, barrels of poisons carried in trucks, other hazardous materials, and chemical manufacturing and storage facilities are all poten­tial weapons in the hands of a terrorist.

In addition to striking industrial entities, small-scale attacks could use an arsenal of contaminants and toxins that are available to virtually anyone or “secured” in areas with little or no real security. Fuels, pesticides and solvents can be used as poisons and con­taminants. In fact, terrorist groups overseas are showing a growing tendency to use readily avail­able materials to conduct strikes.

Just two years ago, for example, Jordanian officials captured a group of al-Qaeda terrorists with tons of chemicals, including sulfuric acid. Security sources said the planned attack would have rivaled 9/11. It would have involved a combination of 71 lethal chemicals, which would have been spread through explosions and possibly as a deadly cloud causing third-degree burns, paralysis and choking.

The potential effects of a deliberate attack are sobering. An Environmental Protection Agency survey of 15,000 chemical facilities found that in a worst-case scenario, a toxic chemical release could affect an average of 40,247 people.

What we need is common-sense legislation that protects us against such catastrophic threats. The government should focus its efforts on finding and stopping terrorist groups rather than overregulating the chemical industry, which is so integral to the U.S. economy.

The U.S. needs legislation that requires the private sector to implement reasonable measures to reduce the like­lihood of catastrophic chemical disasters. At the same time, the new law shouldn’t impose unnecessary costs. The leg­islation should:

--Establish requirements only for critical chemi­cal infrastructure of national significance where a disaster might cause catastrophic damage. The rest of the industry should continue to fol­low voluntary guidelines.

--Create performance-based requirements for the chemical infrastructure modeled on the requirements for maritime infrastructure insti­tuted by the Maritime Transportation and Secu­rity Act. Appropriate measures would include requiring vulnerability assessments, security plans, and security officers but would allow the private sector to determine the best way to implement its security.

--Demand plans to address access control, perim­eter security and security of critical areas.

--Require periodic testing of security and response plans.

--Require the Department of Homeland Security to approve and periodically audit vul­nerability assessments and security plans.

--Assign DHS the jobs of establishing training stan­dards for security officers and requiring back­ground checks for key security personnel.

--Establish penalties for noncompliance.

--Direct the EPA to establish national standards for the transport of hazardous materials (HAZMAT). The EPA should specify which haz­ardous materials and what amounts are highly dangerous. The requirement for background checks for all HAZMAT transporters should be eliminated. Instead, background checks should be required only for individuals transporting highly dangerous materials.

--Require the DHS to coordinate chemical secu­rity polices with the EPA and the Department of Transportation.

We need a national chemical security policy that protects us without trying to put chemicals out of reach in “childproof” containers. As the country approaches the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, it’s past time for Congress to develop that policy.

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow for National Security and Homeland Security at The Heritage Foundation.

James Jay Carafano is vice president of foreign and defense policy studies  The Heritage Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @JJCarafano.