Tianjin blasts: Time for reform

September 23, 2015

As the death toll reaches 164, we look back at how it happened, and what lessons the industry needs to learn going forward.

Last month, the people of Tianjin, China succumbed to a number of large explosions in the one of the world’s busiest ports. The chemical blasts began in a warehouse owned and operated by Ruihai International Logistics. The explosions continued for over 72 hours – causing large fires, destruction to neighbouring buildings, homes and a tragic loss of life.

The emergency response team of fire fighters who arrived at the scene first were not made aware or did not have access to the critical information of what hazardous materials were being stored on the blast site. Without knowing, the fire fighters accelerated the blaze by spraying water on the chemical fire that was comprised of large amounts of calcium carbide – a hygroscopic that when mixed with water emits flammable gases (acetylene).

This hazardous atmosphere gave rise to secondary explosions on site.

Tonnes of toxic chemicals found
It is widely reported the warehouse was holding large amounts of sodium cyanide, potassium nitrate, ammonium nitrate and calcium carbide. Each chemical is extremely hazardous in its own right when transported, stored or dispensed in an unsafe manner.

According to the Guardian, at least 700 tonnes of sodium cyanide was stored on site. Sodium cyanide is extremely toxic and causes adverse effects in humans and all other living organisms. Last month, we spoke to Roland Hughes at the BBC and explained: “With such a large fire, inevitably the plume of toxic fumes that have been dispersed could have devastating effects to the public in the future.”

Sodium cyanide running off into groundwater systems and the nearby estuary in the port not only poses a risk to public health but it also threatens biodiversity in aquatic environments. We also explained to Gautam Naik, reporter at the Wall Street Journal that having such a deadly chemical in the atmosphere could have prolonged consequences. If winds disperse the plume, its effects could be felt over a wider area. A lack of wind on the other hand would mean the toxic plume would be present in the local atmosphere for a longer period of time.

Hard lessons to learn from this disaster
One month on from the blasts, the Chinese government has issued an emergency notice, ordering a nationwide examination of dangerous chemicals and explosives.

And although it appears there is a push to crackdown on illegal activities involving the transport, distribution and improper storage of hazardous materials, it remains to be seen whether industrial organisations will learn the hard lessons from this disaster.

Only time will reveal the long-term health effects that the people of Tianjin have been exposed to. Now it’s more important than ever to reinforce the controlling of major accident hazards for industrial organisations as a top priority.

Compliance with governing directives such as the Seveso III Directive is imperative to minimise the risk surrounding the use, handling, transport and storage of hazardous materials. If you have any duties under the Control of Major Accident Hazards, we recommend you read the 2015 regulations.

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