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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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January 6, 2011

Storage of Industrial Chemicals, Gone Rather Wrong

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Posted by Derek

What do you have when a fire starts at a large chemical packing company, handling all sorts of oils, paints, coatings, and various industrial chemicals? Where they have hundreds of thousand-liter containers stored, surrounded by all the crates and packing material used to trans-ship them? You have this, at Chemie-Pack in the Netherlands yesterday:
And you have a black cloud that stretched across a significant part of the whole country:
Images are from, taken by people at the scene. A reader who lives 20km downwind writes me that he's been getting a pervasive smell of burnt plastic (which, he says, certainly makes a change). His main reason to be grateful is that this didn't spread to the Shell site nearby, which would have prompted an instant vacation to Germany. And then there are all the refineries 15 km to the west - if those ever go up, he tells me, "it'll look like the ending of Gulf War 1 - lowlands-style - with cows for camels".

Comments (15) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: How Not to Do It


1. Keeees on January 6, 2011 10:47 AM writes...

And then there's this picture:

The last line on that sign reads: "Dependable handling of chemical products".

I rather doubt the framing of that shot was by accident.

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2. John Spevacek on January 6, 2011 2:23 PM writes...

"...smell of burnt plastic..."

We can certainly do better than that, right? Burning polyethylene smells different than polypropylene, and different than nylon, PVC (which give off HCl), polycarbonate...

In fact, the smoke test used to be a fairly common and effective method for identifying plastics.

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3. Joe T. on January 6, 2011 4:01 PM writes...

Is that just a shadow under the cloud in the second photo... or is it a rain of toxic soot?

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4. Nicolai Plum on January 6, 2011 4:12 PM writes...

I saw this from the window of an aircraft approaching Amsterdam yesterday, clearly visible as a large smoky fire. "Oops".

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5. flavor on January 6, 2011 4:14 PM writes...

@2 I'm in the smelling business, but I never did the 'recognize the type of burning plastic course' It reminded me mostly of the burned plastic that kit-models are made of.

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6. flavor on January 6, 2011 4:14 PM writes...

@2 I'm in the smelling business, but I never did the 'recognize the type of burning plastic course' It reminded me mostly of the burned plastic that kit-models are made of.

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7. smeller on January 6, 2011 6:09 PM writes...

I want to be in the (nice) smelling business too!

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8. Brooks on January 6, 2011 8:32 PM writes...

@flavor: For typical model kits, that would be styrene.

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9. OldLabRat on January 6, 2011 9:11 PM writes...

Reminds me of the Sherwin-Williams warehouse fire in Dayton, OH in May, 1987. About 1.5MM gal of paints, varnishes, etc up in a very large smoke plume. The flames were visible for several miles as might be expected.
My lab at the time was on the line between my apartment and the fire, which produced a bit of a jolt when I got home and saw the flames. I had left a reaction going overnight with a low condensor flow to avoid floods...

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10. Petros on January 7, 2011 9:45 AM writes...

Mind you when the Buncefield oil storage depot (60 million gallons) went up the shock waves were felt 60 to 70 miles away

had it not been a Sunday there would have been lots of deaths

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11. Nile on January 7, 2011 11:07 AM writes...

In reply to Joe T: yes the soot is probably toxic and mildly carcinogenic... If you live in it, bathe in it, and eat it on a regular basis. One-off exposures will probably do no more than cause irritated mucosa.

The word 'probably' is the problem. The possibility that the soot contains (say) dioxins is low but nonzero.

Breathing the smoke would cause immediate injury, and very likely cause lasting damage, but you knew that already.

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12. Bored on January 8, 2011 11:22 PM writes...

A warehouse near my old apartment caught fire back in the '80's. It was full of pallets of nylon stockings. It smelled all the world like burning celery.

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13. GreedyCynicalSelfInterested on January 9, 2011 6:55 PM writes...

OOPS! That reminds me, gotta go clean out my garage.

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14. Alex on January 10, 2011 6:58 PM writes...

The Buncefield shock wave woke me up. For the next couple of weeks you could see the plume running along the northern horizon from central London, if you had a clear view to the north-west.

The amusing bit was the press hysteria. I remember vividly the Evening Standard's headline: POISON CLOUDS HIT TONIGHT! as I came out of work one night. Very John Wyndham. Of course nothing happened.

However, the fire brigade did run through pretty much the whole national reserve stock of foam concentrates, and Thames Water ended up with an enormous tank full of highly toxic foam/oil/water/combustion products mix for months while they tried to work out how to reduce it to a condition where it could be released into a river or at least the sea without killing the North Sea, London, or at least mutilating the law.

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15. Ilja on January 11, 2011 8:44 PM writes...

The really scary bit is not the Shell refinery 2 doors down, but the company actually next door.

No, not Wartsila, though that was an amount of money wasted that is just not funny.

But Afval Terminal Moerdijk, a waste disposal company, specialising in chemical waste, including ship's flushings (they where the only company in The Netherlands that could have processed the Probo Koala waste), if that place caught fire the whole Rotterdam region would have to be evacuated. Though, their own fire service, fixed fire extinguishing systems and site design prevented anything from catching fire there.

Both them and Shell had sufficient trust in the fire not spreading that their company fire services assisted in putting out the blaze.

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