The Ammonium Nitrate Threat: The Deadly Link Between Chemical Farming and War

August 9th, 2020 - by The Economist

US military hero Timothy McVeigh used a van packed with ammonium nitrate to destroy the US Federal Buidling in Oklahoma in 1995.

The Beirut Blast Is the Latest Tragedy Linked to Ammonium Nitrate

The Economist

(August 5, 2020) —The blast that flattened Beirut’s port on Tuesday has killed more than 135 people and injured thousands more (the number of confirmed fatalities is expected to rise). Lebanon’s Higher Defence Council, chaired by the president and prime minister, has declared the city a “disaster zone”.

The country, which was already facing a financial crisis, is now confronted by a humanitarian one. What sparked the explosion is not yet clear, but its potency seemingly came from more than 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate that authorities were storing in a warehouse. History shows that disasters involving the chemical are tragically common, and should be preventable.

Ammonium nitrate has been used widely in crop fertilizers since the 1940s. It usually comes in pellets, which are cheap to make and stable under normal conditions. But at high enough temperatures the chemical can detonate. This makes it useful as part of industrial explosives in mining, and as a popular bomb-making material for terrorists.

One of the deadliest explosions caused by ammonium nitrate took place in Texas City in 1947. A fire on board a ship carrying 2,300 tons of fertilizer caused it to detonate, killing at least 500 people and creating a 15-foot (4.5-metre) tidal wave. The blast hurled the ship’s anchor, weighing 1.5 tons, 1.6 miles (2.6km) away. The accident prompted new regulations for the manufacturing and transport of chemicals, in particular requiring safer containers for ammonium nitrate.

This has not prevented further disasters (see chart). In 2004 a freight train carrying the chemical exploded in Iran, killing 300 people and destroying a village. And 173 people, many of them firefighters, died in Tianjin on China’s north-east coast in 2015, when chemicals including ammonium nitrate exploded in the port city. In the aftermath, protesters accused the authorities of being secretive about the cause of the blast and who was to blame.

Dangerous handling of the chemical, used as a fertilizer and in bombs, has killed thousands of people around the world

The explosion in Beirut appears to have been caused by a store of ammonium nitrate that had been unloaded from a ship in 2014 and left in a warehouse. Video footage shows a fire in the port followed by the explosion. The city’s governor is reported to have compared the disaster to Hiroshima. Although tragic, the devastation in Lebanon is not on the scale of a nuclear weapon.

The Hiroshima bomb had a force equivalent to 15,000 tons of TNT, whereas the explosion in Beirut was probably closer to a few hundred tons, Jeffrey Lewis, an arms-control expert, told the Washington Post. The deadliest man-made non-nuclear blast occurred during the First World War, when a ship carrying explosives detonated by accident in the Canadian port of Halifax, killing almost 2,000 people.

Outside wartime, however, few explosions compare to the blast in Beirut. It was so powerful that it was heard in Cyprus, 150 miles away. For many Cypriots that brought back memories of the explosion of an ammunition dump in 2011, which killed 13 people and severely damaged a nearby power station, causing widespread blackouts.

Several government ministers resigned, and an investigation blamed the authorities for the disaster. Lebanese will no doubt ask similar questions of responsibility and incompetence. For now, they are still counting the damage.

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