In the evening around 6:00 pm on August 4, 2020, two major explosions occurred at the Beirut port. The explosion was such a huge one that on the Richter scale it registered 3.3 magnitude like a major earthquake. This explosion due to 2750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, is one of the largest explosions in human history after the nuclear explosions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Coincidentally, all these three major explosions in the human history have occurred in August.
The recent Beirut explosion completely burned the port area and caused other devastating effects like a major earthquake in the 15 km radius of the explosion site. Officially, it has killed more than 160 people, injured 6000 and manyare still missing. 300,000 people could not return to their homes as they are damaged. It is estimated that the total cost to repair all of them can go up to 10 to 15 billion US dollars.
It is not the first time ammonium nitrate has caused such an explosion in the human civilization. In 1947 a ship containing ammonium nitrate caught fire in the Houston port area in Texas, USA causing an explosion which killed 600 people, injured 5000, and destroyed 500 homes.
Similarly, in 1995 two terrorists, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols used two tonnes of ammonium nitrate in a truck and attacked Oklahoma City, USA killing 168 people. The most recent one was in Tianjin, China where 800 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored in a warehouse exploded and killed 173 people.
Ammonium nitrate is a common chemical, generally used as a fertilizer. It is also used as an explosion for mining and construction projects. The compound itself is not explosive at low temperatures at less than 200 degrees Celsius, it decomposes to gases like nitrogen, oxygen, and water vapor. Sometimes it also produces gases like nitrous oxide and nitrogen dioxide.
However, at temperatures higher than 230 degrees Celsius and when it gets contaminated with oil or other substances it explodes. The main cause of the explosion is the sudden release of a huge amount of these gases.
The terrible incident in Beirut establishes that it is due to severe negligence and a lack of proper safety protocols. Ammonium nitrate that caused an explosion in Beirut was confiscated from a ship and stored in a warehouse since 2013. Storing such a huge amount of explosive compound near to a major city itself is risky and should not have been done. In case it was confiscated then it should have been diverted within a few weeks to a safe location.
Since devastating damage has already been caused in Beirut, no point in elaborating more on what could have been done, though it will take decades to heal it. Besides human and property loss there is also psychological damage that may take decades to heal or may not heal in a lifetime.
What should this incident teach human civilization? Because it seems in many countries across the world, society has not learned from past mistakes as it is seen in Tianjin or now in Beirut. The leaders and decision-makers are not taking safety protocols as needed, especially, India has a poor record of keeping safety protocols.
After the Beirut incident, there were reports of 700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate in Chennai, which was yesterday diverted to Hyderabad to be used in a private company to manufacture explosives.
Many industries and private companies that manufacture explosives or use explosive materials or poisonous gases are located in major cities or highly populated areas in India. There are no efforts to relocate such industries to remote locations or less densely populated areas. Moreover, the negligence of safety protocols in India is not uncommon.
The Bhopal gas tragedy was the worst. Recently, there was similar leakage of gas in Visakhapatnam killing tens of people and affecting many. There were similar leakages of poisonous gas often reported in media. In day to day life, small and minor incidents of gas leakage, the explosion in firecracker factories, accidental explosion, illegal small bomb manufacturing units, short circuits, etc. are almost pointed out in the daily news in India.
Safety protocols come from proper training and education. In day to day life, sometimes few people and industrial houses just ignore it putting not only themselves but also other people at risk. The culprits of the Bhopal gas tragedy and similar incidents are never brought to justice. Astringent regulation and rules are needed to enforce safety protocols in India. General public in these areas should be given training and awareness to protect themselves and handle these kinds of incidents.
The use of explosive and hazardous materials must be handled carefully following national protocols. For instance, handling a gas cylinder, short circuit, batteries, etc. even in small shops or domestic use must include safety protocols. Not only explosive materials but also toxic materials are handled differently.
For example, in many developed countries solid batteries used for watches, electronics, mobile phones, radios, torchlights, etc. are collected separately instead of dumping them along with house wastes, because these batteries containing toxic chemicals including heavy metals, severely poison soil and groundwater, thus, it directly affects human health.
India has a long way to go in this direction to separate toxic solid and liquid waste during domestic consumption. This is the right time to think and act through proper regulation for better health and the environment.
(The views expressed are the writer’s own)
Digambara Patra, M.Phil, PhD
Professor Department of Chemistry
American University of Beirut