Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Nitroaniline Spill

I took a long leisurely weekend away from the internet so I missed the breathless news out of East St. Louis. According to at least one headline two people were killed and several area hospitals were ‘locked down’ because of an unknown chemical spill. It turns out that that no one was killed, there were eight people hospitalized over Saturday night and Sunday, but all have been released. This incident should be used to demonstrate how not to handle a relatively ‘routine’ chemical spill.




The chemical spilled was nitroaniline, a toxic powder used as a chemical intermediate.


According to the JT Baker Material Safety Data Sheet, nitroaniline exposure, either absorbed through the skin, by inhalation or ingestion, may cause the conversion of hemoglobin to methemoglobin. This may result in difficulty breathing and cyanosis, turning blue, up to 10 to 12 hours after exposure. This is not necessarily fatal as the methemoglobin reverts to normal hemoglobin over time. Complete decontamination, bed-rest, and ventilation assistance as necessary are considered to be the standard treatment for exposure.


There are two other common hazards associated with nitroaniline. First it is an organic powder so it is a dust explosion hazard and it is known to be sensitive to static discharge. This means that with an adequate amount of dust in the air, the slightest spark can ignite a serious explosion. Second, this material is sensitive to moisture; moisture may cause a chemical reaction leading to spontaneous ignition.


As a side note, nitroaniline is not listed in Appendix A to 6 CFR part 27. This means that it is not regulated under CFATS. While it is toxic, it is a dust not a gas or volatile liquid. This means that it is not much of a release hazard. It is a dangerous chemical, but not much of a terrorist target or weapon.


The Incident


While the investigation is not complete by any means, we can piece together a coherent, though not necessarily complete, story from a variety of news reports.


Ro-Corp is packaging/repackaging facility for dry chemicals. Saturday, while handling a drum of nitroaniline, the container was dropped and the lid came off and the powder spilled. The spill was cleaned up and the waste material may have been dropped into a trash dumpster (an EPA no-no, since the stuff should be disposed of as a hazardous waste). According to the company owner, the employees showered on site or at home.


Apparently a couple of hour’s later employees started experiencing symptoms of nitroaniline exposure including dizziness, headaches, and blue skin. They started going to local area hospitals, reporting a chemical exposure. Unfortunately, they could not provide adequate details to the people in the hospitals about their exposure to allay concerns about hospital contamination. Two different emergency rooms were quarantined and decontaminated. At least one hospital was locked down for a short period while the details were sorted out.


Investigators, including the FBI, and a hazmat team were dispatched to the Ro-Corp facility. At least one police officer was reportedly decontaminated on the scene. As of this morning the clean up was still underway and the roads adjacent to the facility were still closed.


The News Cycle


You would have thought that with Hurricane Gustav aimed at New Orleans and McCain announcing a female running mate that there would have been a fairly saturated news cycle. Reported deaths from chemical exposures still find a way to break into bigger news.


As I said I was away from the internet this weekend so I missed most of this. There is a really good chronological summary provided on the Astute Bloggers site. What is valuable is that they also show some of the comments that were making their way around the blogosphere based on the half-true information in the news reports. Just imagine what a claim of terrorist responsibility would have added to the mix.


How it Should Have Been Handled


When the drum was dropped and the lid popped off, the first thing that should have happened is that the immediate area should have been evacuated. Chemical facilities do not normally require employees to be wearing chemical protective equipment to handle sealed containers of chemicals. This means that the people in the immediate area were almost certainly not adequately protected from exposure.


As the evacuation was on-going the personnel in the area of the spill should have been checked for signs of contamination. At the slightest sign of potential contamination they should have been moved into a safety shower for complete decontamination. Clothing would be removed for decontamination or disposal as appropriate.


Since the EPA reportable quantity (RQ) for nitroaniline is 1 pound, the spill would have been reported immediately to the appropriate federal agencies. Local agencies would have been notified as required by local ordinances and state law.


A spill-response team, in appropriate protective equipment, should then have been sent back in to clean up the spill. They would have reviewed the MSDS before returning to the area. Most of the spilled material would have been put into the proper container (not the dumpster) for disposal and then the area would have been washed down with water to complete the decontamination process.


Personnel showing signs of exposure would be transported to the emergency room by the quickest, safest means available. A management representative would accompany them to let the medical staff know that they had been decontaminated and what they had been exposed to. At a minimum, an MSDS for the material in question would accompany the injured.


Exposed personnel not showing immediate symptoms should be briefed on what symptoms to be on the watch for. They would have been given a management point of contact to notify if they had to seek medical attention. They should be given a copy of the MSDS to show to medical personnel.


Doing the Right Thing


If all of this had happened, this news fiasco never would have happened. On a Saturday with lots of national news to catch the spot light, this story would not have made it to the inside page of the Local Section of the hometown news, much less making it to the New York Times.


If there had been an adequate emergency response plan at this facility, the right thing would have been done by everyone concerned. A minor accident would have remained a minor accident. The company would have been spared the embarrassment of being portrayed as a poorly managed chemical company in the national media. Proper training in the emergency response plan probably would have prevented the exposure that resulted in 8 employees being hospitalized on a holiday weekend.


Emergency response plans, spill response plans, site security plans, all of the these administrative ‘burdens’ have a place. Properly prepared and drilled, they will allow a chemical facility to respond properly to unusual situations; respond in a manner that will minimize injury and financial loss. It is too late to do that planning when the lid pops off the fallen drum of nitroaniline.

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