What is ammonium nitrate

What is ammonium nitrate , and why is it so dangerous

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7 August, 2020A catastrophic explosion in Beirut, 4 August 2020, was believed to be caused by ammonium nitrate. The death toll exceeds 135 and may climb as more victims are found and severely injured people succumb to their wounds

What is ammonium nitrate, and why did it explode? IndustriALL Global Union’s health and safety expert, Brian Kohler, answers the important questions

What is ammonium nitrate

Ammonium nitrate is a well-known hazardous material, and has been involved in many disastrous explosions in the past. It is an inorganic chemical used as a nitrogen-rich fertilizer, and also (unsurprisingly) in the manufacture of explosives

Why was it being stored at the port of Beirut

The full story of what triggered this explosion may never be known. However, six years ago, an ageing cargo shipcarrying some 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate made a stop in Lebanon. Debt-ridden and found to be unseaworthy, the ship was impounded and the dangerous cargo confiscated

Rather than resolving the issue or disposing of the seized goods safely, the dangerous ammonium nitrate was stored in a warehouse by the port of Beirut for the past six years. Repeated requests from officials for authorization to dispose or sell the material were apparently unanswered

Why did it explode

Normally, ammonium nitrate can be handled safely. It can, of course, be deliberately detonated when used as an explosive. However, under certain conditions, it can accidentally detonate with devastating force

The ILO International Chemical Safety Card for ammonium nitrate can be found here. Explosive materials are usually regulated. Different jurisdictions have different regulations or guidance on the handling and storage of ammonium nitrate. Check for the applicable rules in your jurisdiction. Here, for example, is some guidance from the United Kingdom

The conditions that make it more dangerous include the presence of impurities such as organic materials, other explosive substances, metals, and sulphur. However, long-term storage of large quantities is in itself dangerous because the material tends to absorb moisture and contaminants and solidify or cake