7:10am

Wed May 1, 2013
Science

Ammonium nitrate storage closely regulated in New York

The chemical responsible for the death of 14 people and injury of over 200 in West, Texas, is in wide use. Leaving many upstate New Yorkers wondering how ammonium nitrate is regulated in New York state.

Ammonium nitrate is a crystal-like substance created from the gas, anhydrous ammonia. Binghamton University Hazardous Waste Manager Bret Pearsall says the chemical is actually one of the most common chemicals in the world.

“The average American that actually has their own garden or has flowers in their garden use ammonium nitrate, it’s pretty much in every commercial fertilizer you purchase. Ammonium nitrate is used in quarrying to get stones. It’s pretty much used in everything,” said Pearsall.

It’s also valuable in the transport industry who use anhydrous ammonia to refrigerated trucks carrying fresh produce.

In New York state ammonium nitrate is heavily regulated by the Department of Agriculture. Before even being allowed to sell the chemical, distributors must be registered and agree to frequent checks by all federal and state regulators. Pearsall says its only when ammonium nitrate comes into contact with fire that it becomes explosive.

“When ammonium nitrate catches on fire that chemical releases oxygen into the fire," he explains. "Obviously you know when you release oxygen to a fire it just makes the fire bigger and hotter, so that’s the actual danger behind ammonium nitrate. Ammonium nitrate by itself isn’t a highly toxic chemical. It’s when it’s stored improperly and in large quantities that it actually becomes hazardous."

Pearsall says if stored in a cool, dry place away from organic or flammable solvents the chemical is harmless. As for where fertilizer plants or facilities are located, he says state officials keep those locations under wraps. Tougher regulations came into effect in New York in late 2005.