By Amir Khan
An explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, which has so far resulted in the deaths of 15 people, also released large amounts of the toxic gas anhydrous ammonia into the air, Texas officials said late on Wednesday. Anhydrous ammonia, which is often used as a fertilizer, is a colorless gas with a pungent smell that when combined with water in the body, can cause severe burns and dehydration. Exposure to the gas can cause breathing difficulty or suffocation, and officials urged residents to stay indoors.
“Exposure to ammonia in sufficient quantities can be fatal,” the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says on its website. “Ammonia can be absorbed into the body by inhalation, ingestion, eye contact, and skin contact.” Anhydrous ammonia, which is a compound of nitrogen and hydrogen, contains no water, hence the term anhydrous. Household ammonia is the same compound, but heavily diluted in water.
Those exposed to the toxic gas are typically given large quantities of water to help dilute the ammonia, according to the University of Minnesota.
“If a person’s skin has been exposed to ammonia, move the victim to a safe area, and flush the exposed area immediately with clean water for at least 15 minutes,” the University of Minnesota says on its website. “Even if small amounts of ammonia enter the eyes, flush them immediately with water for 15 minutes or more. If a person has inhaled ammonia, move the victim to a safe area.”
Anhydrous ammonia has strict safety rules regarding its use and storage. It is explosive when mixed with air at temperatures above -27 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the University of Minnesota, so it must be kept under high pressure at a low temperature in special tanks, one of which ruptured in the explosion. This compressed gas is much more difficult to disperse, according to the CDC.
“Ammonia gas is lighter than air,” the CDC says on its website. “However, under certain conditions, when compressed liquefied ammonia gas initially escapes a cylinder and comes into contact with moisture in the air it will form an ammonia fog. This fog is likely to remain low to the ground, and could prevent ammonia gas from rising in the air.”
The plant, near Waco, that exploded contained 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia, though it is not clear how much has been released from the exploded tank, according to the Los Angeles Times. A nursing home and a middle school near the exploded plant had to be evacuated as a precaution.
"What we are hearing is that there is one fertilizer tank that is still intact at the plant, Ben Stratmann, a spokesman for Texas State Sen. Brian Birdwell, told CNN, ”and there are evacuations in place to make sure everyone gets away from the area safely in case of another explosion."
Texas Governor Rick Perry said in a statement that he’s making all resources needed available to local authorities to help ensure the safety of everyone in the area.
"Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of West, and the first responders on the scene," he said.
"The Health Risks of the Texas Explosion" originally appeared on Everyday Health.