Volatile Chemicals as a Cause of Fire in the Workplace

After the Texas plant explosion recently, the public is more aware of the dangers  of volatile chemicals, like the anhydrous ammonia, which caused the fatal explosion in Texas. Volatile chemicals are often found to be the cause of fires that result in fatalities or permanent disabilities.

What are volatile chemicals? A simple, but somewhat misleading answer, is anything that can evaporate. This would, however, include water, so the definition is narrowed.

Volatile chemicals evaporate quickly, and at low temperatures, like formaldehyde, a preservative and a chemical found in paints. The resultant fumes are from the gas formed by evaporation of the liquid form of the chemical. Formaldehyde, for example, has a boiling point of -2 degrees Fahrenheit. We don’t see it “boil” but we recognize the vapors by their smell. Gasoline is another example of a volatile chemical.

Volatile chemicals are found in nature, and some are man-made. Human breath contains many natural volatile chemicals, for example. However, some men made volatile chemicals possess characteristics, which can have long-term effects on health after exposure. These chemicals may also be subject to combustion and fire, and must be stored safely.

Some volatile chemicals are known explosives. These chemicals are made to be stable under normal circumstances, but other potentially explosive chemicals are not as easily identified. Most potentially explosive chemicals are stable when purchased, but after time can dry out or oxidize, producing instability and a high potential for explosion if they are exposed to heat, light, friction, or shock. Chemicals that release peroxide, for example, can be highly unstable, and it is not completely clear under what conditions different forms of peroxides can explode.

Any volatile chemical can release large amounts of energy rapidly when handled or store improperly. This energy can be  very destructive. An explosion of old isopropyl ether killed a laboratory worker removing a glass stopper from a container. Another example of an explosion caused by volatile chemicals was the explosion of tetrazole, which produced large amounts of explosive vapors within a hazardous waste incinerator.

Solvents used in dry cleaning have been responsible for explosions and fires. Anhydrous ammonia, responsible for the fire in Texas, is a form of ammonia without water. It is a cheap fertilizer that, when it comes in contact with water, combines very quickly, which means that when it comes in contact with the  tissues of the body that contain and high percentage of water, for example skin or eyes, it causes severe burns and dehydration.

Handling of volatile chemicals requires care, and storage methods must be safe. Volatile chemicals are found in the home, as well as in industrial settings. Potentially volatile chemicals should be kept away from direct sunlight, heat, and open flames and sources of sparks.

Symptoms of exposure to volatile chemicals include difficulty breathing, irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, and burns to blisters.

Exposure to volatile chemicals can cause long-term health risks in addition to the risks of explosion. However, injury in a fire caused by volatile chemicals can be extremely severe due to the rapid chemical reaction when exposed to water. Injuries can be extensive and require skin grafting and years of rehabilitation, as well as potentially causing permanent disfigurement or death. If you have been exposed to a fire caused by volatile chemicals at your workplace, this may have been the result of improper storage or handling. You should contact a personal injury lawyer to evaluate your case, including the long-term economic consequences of injury.