A tank car derailment in northern California in 1991 spilled metam sodium into the Sacramento River, and released its breakdown product, methyl isothiocyanate (MITC), into the air. This paper describes the risk evaluation process used. Over 240 individuals reported symptoms such as eye and throat irritation, dizziness, and shortness of breath. Reference exposure levels (RELs) for 1 hr were developed for MITC and compared to exposure concentrations. Ocular irritation in cats was the most sensitive endpoint reported. The no observed adverse effect level (NOAEL), divided by an uncertainty factor (UF) of 100, produced an REL of 0.5 ppb of MITC in air to prevent discomfort. An REL to prevent disability was estimated to be 40 ppb. An REL to prevent life-threatening injury was estimated to be 150 ppb. Measured MITC levels ranged from 0.2-37 ppb and estimated peak levels ranged from 140-1600 ppb. The usefulness of RELs for emergency planning is discussed.