Sonntag, 30. September 2012

Last week, the air smelled funny...

And in some places, the air also looked very spooky, especially considering large dark clouds rolling in from the west on Tuesday morning.

In Krefeld-Uerdingen, one of the large chemical plants site in our state, a storage hall at the COMPO fertilizer plant, containing more than 30,000 tons of different compounds for fertilizer production, was on fire.

Here is an eyewitness video from Duisburg, at the Lutherplatz crossroads. This place is about 1.5 kilometers west from my apartment, and about 2 kilometers away from the place where I work - where I was, when I saw those clouds, marvelling at first at these very peculiar dark rain clouds... until a colleague said "those aren't rain clouds - check the local news on the web!"

Another eyewitness video, from Duisburg-Buchholz, nearer to the fire site:

Aerial video recordings of the fire site and the giant smoke cloud from

Well, according to the state officials of the "Landesamt für Natur, Umwelt und Verbraucherschutz NRW" (State board of nature, environment and consumer rights protection for North-Rhine Westphalia), the readings taken around the cloud were mostly below the AEGL level 1 (AEGL being the "acute exposure guideline level", which is defined at level 1 to possibly cause irritation of mucuous membranes, but not being hazardous to the health). Nitrous oxides, ammonia, and carbon monoxide readings only surpassed that level in direct vicinity of the fire at times... thus causing six people (mostly firefighters) to be slightly injured during exinguishing the flames, from inhaling the fumes.

Funny... I always thought, that anything irritating my mucosae was in some way detrimental to my health, too... but then, growing up in the Ruhr are in the 1970s, the overall air quality back then was bad enough to make me inhale lots of vile stuff...

The fire itself could have been worse, since samples from the extinguishing water contained quite high levels of ammonium nitrate... OK, that's a common compound used in fertilizers, but with other ingredients added and a spark to ignite it, it can also be used to go "boom!" (as an explosive, that is). Fortunately, samples from the river port dock showed, that none of the exinguishing water made it into the river Rhine (unlike the fire at the Swiss Sandoz chemical plant in November 1986, when the extinguishing water got into the Rhine, dyeing the river bright red). So, there won't be masses of dead fish in the Rhine this time. Back then, the corporate officials also claimed, that the pesticides washed into the river were "harmless" and not hazardous for the general public's health. Perhaps not hazardous for the public, but definitely lethal for tons of fish.

Sandoz pesticide plant, Basel, Switzerland, November 1986

All in all, it depends again on how much exposure to the various toxic agents there was... commenting on the fire at the fertilizer plant, one of the COMPO officials said: "we never denied, that inhaling those compounds at higher concentration levels would be hazardous for the health"... typical corporate whitewashing talk. Still, lots of people in the region were suffering from mucosae irritation, sore throats, coughing... not to mention the psychological effect of seeing that cloud and reading and hearing the various mantras of "be careful, but it's not hazardous".

I'm glad, anyway, that the eerie-looking giant cloud has dissipated and the air does not smell of smoke anymore...

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