When something burns, it requires oxygen—that’s why fire extinguishers can easily put out flames by smothering them. Even a small amount of contamination would have made the ammonium nitrate more likely to detonate. See our Privacy Policy and Third Party Partners to learn more about the use of data and your rights. 2020 Beirut explosion: On August 4, a major fire broke out in a Port of Beirut warehouse and spread to 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate which had been impounded and stored for six years after it was seized from an abandoned ship in 2014. Given the reported amount, Oxley hypothesizes that a vehicle must have been used to carry the compound inside, and that could have contaminated it with oil or gasoline. The chemicals reportedly have been sitting by the docks since 2013. Russia is the world's largest producer of ammonium nitrate, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Any carbon-rich fuel—paper, cardboard, or even sugar—can pair with ammonium nitrate to produce more intense energy. Add enough of the oxidizer to a fire, and it will trigger an explosion. The fire caused an explosion and additional fires that damaged more than 1,000 buildings and killed nearly 400 people, according to the website of the Texas Historical Association. Reconstructing exactly what went wrong in Beirut will be difficult, but Chavez says officials should look for evidence of improper storage, confinement, contamination, lack of ventilation, and potential sources of ignition. For perspective, that explosion was triggered by 2,300 US tons (about 2,087 metric tons) of ammonium nitrate, according to US Homeland Security. Some internet rumors speculate that because the ammonium nitrate was left to sit in a warehouse for several years, it would have degraded, becoming more volatile and increasingly dangerous over time. "In the presence of heat, such a mixture can easily lead to catastrophic outcomes," Read added. But the compound can contribute to explosions because it belongs to a chemical class known as oxidizers. Safe storage would mean keeping the ammonium nitrate away from any source of ignition, keeping it away from anything combustible and keeping it in small enough containers, far enough away from one another, that if one were to ignite it would not spread to the others, he said. On 4 August 2020, a large amount of ammonium nitrate stored at the port of the city of Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, exploded, causing at least 204 deaths, 6,500 injuries, and US$15 billion in property damage, and leaving an estimated 300,000 people homeless. Former British army major Chris Hunter, an expert in fertilizer bombs and explosives disposal, said he was "almost certain" that the main detonation was caused by an "industrial accident.". Or, this discrepancy might mean that the material inside the warehouse was not pure ammonium nitrate, and some other compound was involved with the blast. The production of ammonium nitrate is subject to strict testing measures in Europe, which Hoxha says were ramped up after a 2001 explosion in Toulouse, France that killed dozens. "Both of these things will be questioned in the investigation into the Beirut explosion, because they had such a large amount of ammonium nitrate, which may not have been stored appropriately, and in an area where there is a large number of people," he said. 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Ammonium nitrate is … Seventy-five years later, National Geographic revisits the elusive horror of Hiroshima. Documents unearthed by Al Jazeera say the ammonium nitrate arrived in Beirut aboard a Russian-owned cargo ship after the vessel experienced mechanical problems at sea. Lebanon was already dealing with political and financial woes, due in part to the Syrian migration crisis and the coronavirus pandemic. Breivik, the Norwegian terrorist, was able to acquire and stockpile it because he had a small farm, Walker explained. The blast filled Beirut’s air with particulate matter, one of the most common forms of air pollution. Using math pioneered in the 1940s to infer the atomic bomb’s yield, experts can analyze videos of a shockwave to get rough estimates of an explosion’s total energy and how much material blew up. “Plastics, for example, paint, and other organic materials that completely or partially burned—all the building materials that became dust.”, The deadly history of ammonium nitrate, the explosive linked to the Beirut blast, Photograph by Anwar AMRO, AFP via Getty Images. Other health issues, akin to those seen after 9/11, may emerge given the widespread destruction to buildings and roads. “There’s a massive amount of energy given off very quickly,” says Stephen Beaudoin, a chemical engineer also at Purdue University. In April 1995, American terrorists Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols used two tons of the compound in a truck-bomb attack on the Oklahoma City federal building; 168 people were killed. "It's a question of having a level playing field between European producers and Russian producers," Antoine Hoxha, technical director of the Fertilizers Europe organization, told CNN. Webinar: Lessons learned from Beirut and Ammonium Nitrate November 20, 2020 Ralph Stuart Leave a comment CAS will be hosting a webinar on Friday, December 4th at 11:30 EDT. "It's an industry where you must never be complacent," Gilbertson added. But the country has faced obstacles in their attempts to sell the fertilizer to Europe. Given its potentially hazardous nature, governments typically restrict access to ammonium nitrate, and require people to have a license to buy it. Tuesday's blast has been linked to a stockpile of the chemical compound ammonium nitrate that had been stored in a hangar at Beirut’s port since it was confiscated from a ship in 2013. Cell phone videos also show the shockwave and dust cloud rushing through the portside buildings, leaving behind scenes of carnage in the Lebanese capital. Compared to most combustible materials, ammonium nitrate itself is not exceptionally explosive. Please enable cookies on your web browser in order to continue. The shipment was eventually abandoned, and its cargo moved into the hangar where it remained, despite Lebanese custom officials requesting its disposal on at least six different occasions, according to The New York Times. Though Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, estimates it’s probably closer to 400 tons. Prime Minister Hassan Diab said the chemical had been stored for the past six years "without preventive measures," and promised an investigation. "Ammonium nitrate is ... relatively safe by itself, although a strong oxidant, but highly dangerous when contaminated by any kind of fuel, such as oil or organic material, even in just a few per cent," Roger W. Read, Honorary Associate Professor at the University of New South Wales' School of Chemistry, told the Science Media Centre. The red-orange-brown smoke is characteristic of nitrous oxide, a toxic gas released from the ammonium nitrate, he said. It’s known to predispose people to the worst effects of respiratory diseases, including COVID-19. And in 1972, three people were killed in Taroom when a truck transporting ammonium nitrate exploded after experiencing an electrical fault and fire. The S.S. Grandcamp—carrying ammonium nitrate, fuel, and ammunition—arrived at the Houston-area port with smoke spewing from its cargo hold.