A massive chemical spill that sent 40 people to the hospital in a far northern suburb of Chicago illustrates the extreme health hazards of exposure to anhydrous ammonia.
Police and fire crews who responded to a reported vehicle fire in Beach Park, Illinois, in the early morning hours of April 25 encountered plumes of toxic gas escaping from a tractor trailer truck hauling tanks of anhydrous ammonia, which is commonly used in fertilizer. The truck was reportedly en route from Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin, to a farm in Northern Illinois.
It’s still unclear what caused the leak, but it was not believed to be the result of a vehicle crash. Forty people, including 11 firefighters and a police officer, were taken to a local hospital, all with varying degrees of respiratory distress. The injured included vehicle occupants who were traveling in the vicinity of the spill and even residents of nearby homes. While most were treated and released, seven people remained in serious to critical condition up to two days after the incident, some on artificial respirators, and their prognosis was uncertain.
People who inhaled the fumes complained of choking sensations, dizziness, and difficulty breathing. Drivers overcome by the pungent vapors made frantic calls to 911 from their cars. Anhydrous ammonia is so toxic that inhaling even a small amount of its vapors can cause burning of the eyes, nose, and throat, and possibly coughing or choking, even paralysis of the airway. Exposure to high concentrations of the colorless gas can cause death from severe inflammation of the air passages, chemical burns to the lungs, or buildup of fluid in the lungs.
Precautions Taken By Law Enforcement Officials
The leak caused a toxic cloud that lingered for several hours. Lake County officials closed several local schools as a precaution and police warned residents living within a one-mile radius of the accident to remain in their homes with the windows closed, while hazmat crews in protective gear worked on neutralizing the spill.
One Beach Park area resident reported seeing fog outside his windows and another reported that his lawn and garden had already turned brown from the chemical fumes.
According to an official with the Lake County Sherriff’s Department, the chemical is potentially lethal because victims can lose consciousness before they even know they’ve inhaled anything dangerous, which is why police issued the shelter-in-place instructions.
The medical director of Waukegan’s Vista Hospital, where most of the victims were taken, was quoted as saying the potential long-term damage that some of the injured will suffer can’t be immediately known.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, when liquid anhydrous ammonia is released from a container, it rapidly expands into the air and forms a large gaseous cloud. Because the vapors linger at ground-level before rising, the risk of human exposure is greater than with other gases.
Medical Treatment for People With Ammonia Exposure
Perhaps the most frightening thing is that there is no antidote for ammonia poisoning. Medical treatment primarily consists of mitigating the respiratory damage by administering supplemental oxygen to the patient or using bronchodilators, and treating any skin or eye irritation by flushing with large amounts of water or saline. It is sometimes necessary to intubate the most severely injured victims, which was the case with at least one of the Beach Park victims, and surgery might even be required to open the airway.
Most people recover from minor to moderate ammonia exposure quickly and without long-term effects, but those exposed to larger amounts may develop severe lung injury over the course of 18 to 24 hours including pulmonary edema, and may suffer serious delayed effects such as gastric perforation, glaucoma, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The CDC advises that persons exposed to significant amounts be reexamined periodically and receive annual pulmonary function tests.
NTSB Investigation Beginning
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the incident, but several reports claimed it was caused by a leak in a hose connecting the 2-ton tanks containing the chemical. The owner and the driver of the truck, who wasn’t injured, were cooperating with investigators.
According to news sources, this is the third known ammonia spill in Illinois this year. Since 2013, there have reportedly been an average of a dozen similar spills each year.
Tanker truck spills and explosions are sometimes the result of faulty maintenance of the vehicles or the transport equipment, or poor training or inexperience on the part of the operators. Other times it is not maintenance or operation that is the issue, but a flaw in manufacturing of either the transport equipment or the chemicals themselves. Government investigators will look at all parties involved, from the producer of the ammonia to the shipping company to the truck manufacturer.
Clearly, exposure to toxic substances is nothing to be taken lightly. Anyone who experiences even minor respiratory distress after breathing in a powerful chemical should seek medical attention, since the effects may develop slowly and result in serious and permanent injury if not promptly treated.
Were You or a Family Member Injured in this Ammonia Spill?
If you suffered injuries as a result of this ammonia spill, you likely have legal rights to pursue civil damages against the responsible parties. While this investigation gets underway, you have the right to secure an attorney to represent your interests. Rosenfeld Injury Lawyers LLC stands ready to help you navigate your legal options for financial recovery following this incident. We invite you to contact our office today for a free review of your options.