As we go about our daily lives, each of us has numerous unknown encounters with dangerous goods (hazardous materials) without incident. These encounters are safe because those goods are safely packaged, transported, stored and used, thanks to the hard work of dangerous goods professionals (DG) around the world whose efforts often go unnoticed.
On August 4, 2020, in Beruit, Lebanon, 2,750 tons of ammonia nitrate exploded, killing at least 220 people, injuring more than 5,000, and leaving over 300,000 homeless. The blast is the largest accidental ammonia nitrate explosion ever recorded. At least ten times over the past six years, Lebanese security agencies and judiciary sounded the alarm bell that a massive amount of explosive chemicals were being unsafely stockpiled at the port in the heart of Beirut. Even with all these warnings of an impending disaster, nothing was done, and sadly, a tragedy occurred.
Manufactured in beads that resemble cooking salt, ammonia nitrate is generally safe to handle and is used in numerous ways, such as in fertilizer for agriculture. But storing and transporting it can be problematic. When exposed to high heat and other fuel sources, ammonia nitrate can become explosive. This is why in many countries there are strict rules governing its storage and transportation. For example, many European Union nations require calcium carbonate be added to it, creating calcium ammonium nitrate, which is safer. In the United States, regulations were tightened after two tons of ammonia nitrate were used to create the bomb in the 1995 Oklahoma City federal building attack that killed 168 people; now, under the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards, facilities that store 2,000lbs of ammonia nitrate are subject to inspection.
In my nearly 30 years of work in the dangerous goods community, I have sat through countless meetings, presentations, and hearings discussing the finer points of performance-oriented packaging testing or the proper paperwork and labeling for a shipment of radioactive material. I have had numerous conversations late into the night about the shipment of oxygen cylinders on airplanes. And if you really want to jumpstart a heated discussion, bring up the illegal shipment of counterfeit lithium batteries. The one thing all of these encounters have had in common is the untold number of DG professionals who have dedicated their careers to keeping people and the environment safe.
Not many of us actually set out to have a career in this field, but once we are introduced to it, it becomes a life long passion. Ranging from government regulators, fire department chiefs, trade association members, and dangerous goods managers at companies around the globe, these DG professionals are truly dedicated to keeping us safe from disasters like the one that took place in Lebanon.
As I write this, it is Labor Day weekend in the United States. I want to take this opportunity to thank everyone in the DG community for your work–labor that keeps our communities and families safe.