Ammonia (NH3) has been hitting the news for all the wrong reasons, after several gas leaks have been reported at workplaces.
Ammonia is a compound of nitrogen and hydrogen and is a colourless gas with a pungent smell.
Over 80% of world-wide ammonia production is used in agriculture as fertiliser. It is also used in refrigerant gas, for purification of water supplies, and in the manufacture of plastics, explosives, textiles, pesticides, dyes and other chemicals.
Inhalation of a low concentration of ammonia causes irritation to the nose and throat and this can lead to coughing, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing and tightness in the chest.
Exposure to a high concentration of ammonia in the air may cause severe burns to the skin, eyes, throat or lungs. Depending on the severity of the burns this could cause permanent blindness, lung disease or death.
On 1 April 2016 an ammonia leak at a Shamrock Farms facility in Phoenix resulted in multiple people complaining of burning eyes.
The leak occurred in an ammonia holding tank and five people were transported to hospital for further evaluation.
Just over a week earlier on 23 March 2016 a warehouse worker in Boston’s Seaport District died after being overcome by fumes from an ammonia leak.
The leak was reported by employees when they began noticing a strong odour and spotted it outside the plant.
The leak came from a large cold storage facility where ammonia is used as a refrigerant for processing seafood. 5,400 gallons of ammonia were stored inside and it is unclear how much leaked into the air.
Four other employees were in the building during the leak but were able to quickly and safely evacuate.
Workers at a fertiliser plant in Brazil also had a lucky escape. On 17 February 2016 nine people were sickened by a leak from an ammonia system control valve. They had to be taken to hospital but were all released and said to be in good health.
This was not the case on 7 December 2015 when two men working at a nitrogen plant in Canada were admitted to hospital after an ammonia leak.
Both men were hired for contract work and they were weatherproofing the outer layer of a large ammonia tank when the leak occurred.
The leak was quickly contained and both workers were transported to hospital within half an hour of the leak.
Unfortunately one man died after being exposed to the gas, while the second man was treated and released with minor injuries.
These incidents highlight the dangers of inhaling too much ammonia, and also the need for a gas monitoring system to detect the level of ammonia in an environment.