The latest chemical leak at the Indspec Chemical Corporation plant in Petrolia, Pennsylvania is another example of the dangers of chemical production. The Associated Press reports that last Saturday, October 12th, at 5 pm the plant experienced a leakage of a substance called oleum that overflowed a tank and instantly evaporated.
Oleum, a composite chemical with many of the same properties as sulfuric acid, is in fact most often used for the transportation of sulfuric acid in a less volatile form. But the spill at Petrolia still caused alarm due to the evaporation of the chemical into a cloud that moved in a westerly direction close to the ground, prompting a three-mile evacuation and fears of respiratory and other related ailments.
There are a number of chemicals we use everyday, but industrial chemicals production hazards are not a new threat, perhaps the most detrimental being the 1984 chemical leak in Bhopal, India. The leak, a product of massive system and security failure, caused 40 metric tons of methyl isocyanate (MIC) to be released over the surrounding town. A total of 3,000 people were reported dead in the days that followed, as well as 100,000 injured or permanently disabled.
Admittedly, security measures have increased since Bhopal, including “process safety,” a systematic approach to the identification, evaluation, and prevention of accidental chemical release. After becoming standardized in1985, a 1989 publication was released titled “Guidelines for Technical Management of Chemical Product Safety.” Further safety procedures were created at a 1999 conference of the National Chemical Safety Program, eventually releasing a four part report called the “2001 Assessment of Chemical Safety in the United States.” But even the chemical safety industry acknowledges that reports and mandates can only go so far. Director of the Mary Kay O’Connor Process Safety Center at Texas A&M University says, “We are spending millions and billions of dollars on these programs on the industry side and the government side, and yet there’s no way of knowing what the [overall status of national chemical safety] is.”
Many protest that it is not the chemicals that are the problem, but the safety measures enacted to separate chemicals from the outside environment. But when these measures fail, as was the case in Bhopal, the consequences can be dire, both on people and the environment that supports them. Perhaps cleaner, greener, kinder chemicals are necessary in more parts of life.