↓ Expand ↓

Category → In the News

Friday chemical safety round up

Chemical health and safety news from the past couple of weeks.

First up, on the West Fertilizer explosion in Texas:

  • The Chemical Safety Board launched a Facebook page for its investigation into the West Fertilizer explosion
  • Sustained Outrage posted about various familiar issues surrounding the disaster
  • At a Texas House committee hearing, many agencies many agencies said “not my job” regarding lack of oversight and allowing large quantities of ammonium nitrate to be stored near a residential area
  • And the Center for Public Integrity reported on concerns about the pace of CSB investigations


  • In honor of Workers’ Memorial Day, the National Council for Occupational Safety & Health released “Preventable Deaths: The Tragedy of Workplace Fatalities” and the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention devoted its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report to worker concerns.
  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics released its final count of fatal work injuries in 2011: 4,693, “the third lowest annual total since the fatal injury census was first conducted in 1992.” That’s 3.5 fatal injuries per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers.
  • The Berkeley Science Review published a long article on the lab safety changes in the University of California system in the wake of Sheri Sangji’s death
  • The May issue of the Process Safety Beacon looks at “Pressure relief valve bonnets–to plug or not to plug?“
  • A Florida high school student experimented with combinging aluminum foil and toilet bowl cleaner in a water bottle on campus before school. She subsequently was expelled from school and charged with possessing and discharging weapons and a destructive device on school grounds. Yes, gas pressure built up in the bottle so it exploded, but really, it seems ridiculous to expel a student for this. From all reports, she was just curious and didn’t intend to harm anyone.
  • Janssen chemist Ramineh Behbehanian, on the other hand, perhaps did want to harm people by putting rubbing alcohol-contaminated orange juice onto the shelves of a San Jose, Calif., Starbucks. An alert customer saw her do it.
  • Norway orders BP safety review after leak
  • The Las Vegas Sun looked back at a 1988 explosion at ammonium perchlorate manufacturer Pacific Engineering Production Co. of Nevada that killed two people and injured more than 300 (C&EN archive story here, paywall-free link! coming), and explored what hazardous materials plants are in the area today
  • And WSYR in New York looked back at a fire from a flame test demonstration that left a teacher and three students badly burned
  • U.K. authorities fined SAFC Hitech $190,000 for a 2012 incident in which trimethylindium caught fire and badly burned one worker

Fires and explosions:

  • Three workers were killed in an explosion in a fireworks factory in India
  • Also in India, and explosion and fire from some sort of chemical transfer at Ganesh Plasto injured one
  • A fire at a Formosa Plastics plant in Texas involved ethylene and injured at least nine people (another story says a dozen)

Leaks, spills, and other exposures:

  • One worker died and six others were treated for exposure after breathing hydrogen sulfide fumes while cleaning pipes at a wastewater treatment plant at the Port of Tampa, in Florida
  • Something “in the ‘cyanide’ family” spilled at metal finisher Kocour in Illinois, sending one person for medical treatment
  • Phenol spilled at a medical clinic in Iowa, sending 13 people to two local hospitals, and also at a U.K. high school
  • Hydrogen peroxide leaked from equipment at the College of Nanoscale Science & Engineering in New York
  • Chemicals stored by a deceased fireworks enthusiast in a residential shed led to the evacuation of 49 neighboring houses while the bomb squad investigated

Not covered (usually): meth labs; ammonia leaks; incidents involving floor sealants, cleaning solutions, or pool chemicals; transportation spills; things that happen at recycling centers (dispose of your waste properly, people!); and fires from oil, natural gas, or other fuels.

Hearing scheduled for David Snyder in UC Davis explosives case

Former University of California, Davis, chemist David Snyder had a second prehearing conference today regarding charges of possessing and intending to make explosives on campus. The judge scheduled Snyder’s preliminary hearing to start on July 26, says Michael Cabral, assistant chief deputy district attorney in the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office.

As part of the case, the prosecution wants to review Snyder’s medical records, a move that Snyder opposes. The judge scheduled a hearing on that matter for May 30.

Ripped from the pages: More on the West Fertilizer explosion in Texas

Texas explosion facts emerge, report Glenn Hess and Jeff Johnson in C&EN this week, although much remains unknown:

According to state and federal records, the retail facility stored some 270 tons of ammonium nitrate and 54,000 lb of anhydrous ammonia for sale to local farmers. …

The facility appeared not to segregate ammonium nitrate, nor did it have automatic sprinkler systems, structural fire barricades, or other mechanisms to limit fires. Whether first responders were aware of what was in the warehouse and its potential for explosion is unknown. …

Ammonium nitrate storage and use are controlled by state and federal regulations. However, it appears that West Fertilizer’s reports to regulators held conflicting information about what materials and quantities were stored, so this small retail distribution facility may not have triggered regulators’ notice. …

Meanwhile, C&EN Deputy Editor-in-Chief Josh Fischman writes in an editorial about a 1947 ammonium nitrate explosion in Texas that killed nearly 600 people, including 27 firefighters, and destroyed 500 homes:

On Oct. 20, 1947, C&EN reported that an expert at the President’s Conference on Fire Prevention said the disaster could have been prevented if “reasonable safety rules had been observed.”

Apparently that hasn’t happened.

There’s also been a West-related dust-up in California. Earlier this year, Texas Governor Rick Perry launched an ad campaign in California and visited the state to try to woo businesses “with promises of low taxes, loose regulations and a hard stance on organized labor,” reported the Los Angeles Times in February. Sacramento Bee cartoonist Jack Ohman subsequently responded to the West Fertilizer explosion with this cartoon. Perry responded that the cartoon inappropriately “mock[ed] the tragic deaths of my fellow Texans and our fellow Americans.” What say you, Safety Zone readers? Was the cartoon appropriately provoking or insensitive?

Friday chemical safety round up

First up, our thoughts are with everyone in the Boston and West, Texas, areas today.

Secondly, on the fertilizer explosion in West: Although early reports all said that the incident involved anhydrous ammonia, C&EN’s Jeff Johnson reported yesterday that ammonium nitrate was likely the explosive material at West Fertilizer Co. Today, the Los Angeles Times and New York Times both say the facility had ammonium nitrate. The NYT gives numbers: “540,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate on the site and 110,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia.” The current toll is 12 confirmed dead, 60 missing, more than 200 injured, and many left homeless. I’m curious whether zoning laws actually allowed that amount of hazardous material so close to a residential area, two schools, and a nursing home. For local coverage, see the Waco Tribune and Dallas Morning News.

Now on to other news from the past few weeks, skipping incidents and focusing other things that I’ve collected:

  • Mark at Chemistry Blog posted about his grandfather’s chemical legacy:

    A day later I had sorted everything out into three categories: Category 1, mostly harmless (salts, some buffers etc). Category 2, most definitely not harmless (concentrated acids and such like). And the third category I called “What the f*** has he got here!”

  • In the Pipeline posted a video, “made at some point by some French lunatics,” that nicely illustrates the hazards of working with chlorine trifluoride
  • A debate on whether chemistry demos overly rely on explosions emerged on Twitter; ChemistryWorld gathered the tweets at Storify while Philosophically Distrubed blogged that “chemistry explosions are all bang and no buck“
  • It’s been a while since I’ve said this, but it’s worth a reminder: Students and postdocs, be aware that you may not be eligible for workers’ compensation if you’re injured in a lab (reminder courtesy of this story about injured student athletes being responsible for their health expenses)
  • NOAA released updated Chemical Reactivity Worksheet software
  • Accounts of Chemical Research published a special issue on Environmental Health & Safety Considerations for Nanotechnology
  • As OSHA emphasizes safety, long-term health risks fester says the New York Times, in a piece that looks at exposure of furniture workers and n-propylbromide-containing glues
  • The Pump Handle covered worker safety provisions in the Senate immigration reform bill
  • The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board says that the Hanford nuclear waste treatment plant “has design problems that could lead to chemical explosions, inadvertent nuclear reactions and mechanical breakdowns“
  • The April issue of the AIChE’s Process Safety Beacon is out: Have you heard a pressure relief valve chatter?
  • The National Academy of Sciences published a review of the Department of Labor’s Site Exposure Matrix Database, which DOL uses to determine compensation for occupational exposure claims at Department of Energy facilities

Post updated April 22, 2013, with a paywall-free link to the workers compensation story.

Ripped from the pages: DHS lagging on chemical security, CSB has offshore jurisdiction, and hydrofluoric acid concerns

Chemical industry safety news from C&EN and elsewhere so far this week:

  • Homeland Security Department inspector general criticizes agency’s chemical security program

    Efforts by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to safeguard the nation’s chemical facilities against terrorist threats have been hampered by revolving leadership and an overreliance on contractors, according to a recent report by the department’s inspector general. DHS has been under fire since late 2011 when a leaked internal memo revealed that the chemical security program, the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS), was beset by a series of management and personnel problems.

  • Chemical Safety Board has authority to investigate offshore accidents under federal court decision

    The Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) intends to increase its focus on investigating chemically related offshore accidents. The new direction springs from a recent federal judicial decision affirming that CSB has this authority.

  • U.S. refinery workers see hydrofluoric acid release risk

    A survey of workers at 23 U.S. crude oil refineries [pdf] found a majority of safety systems were not considered very effective in preventing a release of highly toxic hydrofluoric acid within their plants or to the communities beyond.

    C&EN last year covered Citgo’s HF woes and efforts to develop replacements.

Friday chemical safety round up

Chemical health and safety news from the past week:

  • From the Pump Handle: When created as a manufacturing byproduct, such as from synthesizing pigments, are polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) a health hazard?
  • The National Academy of Sciences issued a report on potential heath risks to Department of Defense firing-range personnel from recurrent lead exposure: “Given the committee’s findings about the inadequacy of the OSHA lead standard, DOD should review its guidelines and practices for protecting workers from lead exposure on firing ranges. One consideration should be a lowering of acceptable [blood lead levels] to more stringent levels that reduce the risk of adverse health effects.”
  • The ACS Committee on Chemical Safety released an Arabic translation of Creating Safety Cultures in Academic Institutions
  • The Chemical Safety Board will hold a public meeting in Richmond, Calif., on April 19 to release its interim report and recommendations from its investigation into a Chevron refinery fire
  • New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation fined SI Group $112,500 for Clean Air Act violations, SI Group’s third state pollution fine in two years. “An Oct. 10 explosion at the plant that destroyed an air pollution unit was preventable, according to DEC, and was caused because SI workers ‘lacked knowledge of the full range’ of the explosive nature of the chemical reaction, and had ‘improperly engineered’ a release of flammable vapor.”

Fires and explosions:

  • “They were testing a new batch today of a product that they are not familiar with at all… The owner noticed smoke coming from the batch room, opened the door and saw that he had a lot of product on fire” at JICE Pharmaceuticals, which produces animal healthcare products in Missouri. Why on earth would the company be making a product that it wasn’t familiar with?

Leaks, spills, and other exposures:

  • Five gallons of formalin spilled at courier surface Dunham Express in Wisconsin
  • Nitric acid spilled at Advanced Precision Anodizing in Oregon
  • I believe this is at Scripps Research Institute’s La Jolla, Calif., site: “A lab worker was mixing together hot and cold substances” when a test tube broke, and he was injured on his face

Not covered (usually): meth labs; ammonia leaks; incidents involving floor sealants, cleaning solutions, or pool chemicals; transportation spills; things that happen at recycling centers (dispose of your waste properly, people!); and fires from oil, natural gas, or other fuels.

Letter on Donaldson Enterprises fatal fireworks incident

A letter to the editor in this week’s C&EN focuses on a fatal fireworks disposal incident in 2011, when five Donaldson Enterprises died in an explosion and fire in a storage magazine after disassembling contraband fireworks:

As a chemist with more than 50 years’ involvement with display fireworks, I find it appalling that in the Donaldson Enterprises Inc. incident the safest and most obvious means of disposal was apparently never considered (C&EN, Jan. 28, page 26). Simply firing the materials normally and allowing them to function as designed in a safe place would have been a far better course of action.

Display fireworks are fundamentally different from munitions and other classes of explosives in too many ways to list here. But following are a few of the more salient differences applicable to disposal: They are often complex in construction, not designed with disassembly in mind, and widely varied in the number of different pyrotechnic compositions that might be present in a single device. They are not reliably destroyed by water or other liquids, are perilous to cut into, and are dangerous to mass-incinerate whether wet or dry. Disposal involving such methods requires great caution and a full knowledge of the product and should be reserved only for situations where conventional firing is impossible.

It appears that the materials in this case were not damaged or defective, but were merely mislabeled. Had they been properly marked and classified for professional use, they would have been perfectly suitable for that purpose. Therefore, there was no practical necessity for disposal by unusual means.

This raises the question of whether the root cause of this tragedy was, in fact, bureaucratic: Might arbitrary yet rigid protocols have precluded a far safer and simpler disposal? It would not be the first time that safety has been sacrificed upon its own altar by misguided policy.

I’m not sure it’s safe to assume that the fireworks were neither damaged nor defective or that “arbitrary yet rigid protocols…precluded a far safer and simpler disposal.” I don’t think the Chemical Safety Board addressed whether the fireworks were in good condition–from what I understand, no one with fireworks expertise ever looked at them, which frankly seems to be the whole reason those five workers died.

As for whether bureaucracy was at fault, CSB actually pointed to a lack of regulations and protocols as contributing to the incident. From the CSB report (pdf):

Contractor Selection and Oversight Findings

  • The Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR), which governs federal agencies’ acquisition of goods and services, does not specifically require a federal contracting officer to consider safety performance measures and qualifications when determining the “responsibility” of a potential government contractor or subcontractor to handle, store, and dispose of hazardous materials such as fireworks.
  • The Department of the Treasury Acquisition Regulation (DTAR), the Department of the Treasury’s supplement to the FAR, does not impose sufficient requirements for safe practices and subcontractor selection and oversight with respect to the unique hazards associated with handling, storing, and disposing of hazardous materials.

Regulatory and Industry Safety Standard Findings

  • The CSB found a lack of regulations or industry standards that adequately address safe fireworks disposal. Federal or local codes, regulations, or industry standards do not establish safety requirements, provide guidance on proper ways to dispose of fireworks, or address the hazards associated with the disassembly of fireworks and the accumulation of explosive fireworks components.
  • While OSHA’s [Process Safety Management (PSM)] standard applies to fireworks manufacturing, OSHA has determined that the regulation does not apply to work activities related to fireworks disposal. Therefore, DEI was not required to implement a more robust PSM system for its fireworks disposal process. For example, DEI’s change to its disposal process led to the accumulation of material that created a mass explosion hazard. PSM elements such as Management of Change (MOC) would have required a safety review of this change.
  • Emergency hazardous waste disposal permits are granted in Hawaii and throughout the country to entities seeking to dispose of seized contraband fireworks because they are considered an imminent threat to human health and the environment. However, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) does not incorporate PSM-type elements in its hazardous waste permitting process, despite the extremely hazardous nature of the materials covered by these permits.

Friday chemical safety round up

Cletus Welch, a senior research chemist for the chemical division of PPG Industries, finds that glassware in his lab makes an unusual chess set. During a break in his research on chlorine-oxygen compounds at PPG's Barberton, Ohio, labs, Cletus set up a game using the pieces as chessmen. C&EN July 28, 1969, via The Watch Glass

Cletus Welch, a senior research chemist for the chemical division of PPG Industries, finds that glassware in his lab makes an unusual chess set. During a break in his research on chlorine-oxygen compounds at PPG’s Barberton, Ohio, labs, Cletus set up a game using the pieces as chessmen. C&EN July 28, 1969, via The Watch Glass

If y’all aren’t following The Watch Glass, C&EN’s “random walk” through 90 years of C&EN curated by Deirdre Lockwood, go check it out! Personally, I have a love/hate relationship with our archives, because I inevitably get sucked in and lose a couple of hours to reading.

Chemical health and safety news from the past (rather quiet) week:

  • Not chemistry, but good insight into the problems with workplace injury numbers: Counting work-related amputations. Of all the workplace injuries to be recorded, you’d think this would be a relatively easy one to get right. There’s not much gray area in amputation.
  • On the (weak) links between environmental contaminants and cancer: Cancer cluster or chance?
  • Insecurity about chemical plants: Federal officials defend backlogged risk assessment program.

Fires and explosions:

  • An explosion at an Enviro-Safe Refrigerants plant in Illinois injured four workers, all of whom suffered burns.
  • An explosion and fire at Hexion Specialty Chemicals in Wisconsin injured no one.

Leaks, spills, and other exposures:

  • 50 gal of phenol spilled into the Delaware River after an equipment malfunction at Kinder Morgan in Pennsylvania.
  • A spill of 300 gal of bleach into a storm drain in Georgia was supposedly resolved by adding some sort of dechlorination agent. I’m curious to know the chemistry here–where did the chlorine wind up?
  • Also in Georgia, Albany State University called for a hazmat team when a professor and two lab workers noticed an odor and one got nauseated. There’s no word on which chemicals were involved.

Not covered (usually): meth labs; ammonia leaks; incidents involving floor sealants, cleaning solutions, or pool chemicals; transportation spills; things that happen at recycling centers (dispose of your waste properly, people!); and fires from oil, natural gas, or other fuels.