Chemopanic


Recent incidents around Denver concerning chemical hazards, usually with the appearance of a "hazmat" crew in protective gear, yellow tape, ordering about of civilians and arrest of a few, followed by TV and newspaper reports of outstanding lack of information and apparent ignorance. Here is an example, to show what is under discussion:

Denver Post, 2 February 2003: "Police Detonate School Chemicals. LITTLETON--Several hundred people were temporarily evacuated from their homes Saturday while bomb squad members detonated dangerous chemicals found in a high school laboratory. The chemicals had been collected over the years for use in the Littleton High School chemistry lab, said police spokesman Sean Dugan."

Information on such incidents, especially the names of chemicals and their hazards, never appears in public reports, and I would not care to expose myself to suspicion by inquiry. The operations are like Nazi Germany run by mentally defective clowns. In this case, the chemical was probably ether, a frequent cause of such panics. Ether is a light, volatile organic solvent employed frequently in organic chemistry. It usually comes in small metal cans with screw tops, and in a typical laboratory two or three litres might be on hand. It is a fire hazard, because its vapor ignites at a rather low temperature, about 180°C. Ether evaporates rapidly, and the vapor is heavier than air, sinking rapidly to the floor and spreading. If it has time to mix with air, it is explosive from 1.85% to 36.5% concentration. Ether is not an explosive in itself, but acts like any flammable gas. It is considered somewhat more hazardous than gasoline, but the danger is about the same. Ether sometimes forms small amounts of explosive peroxides if exposed to light and stored for a long time. These can give the effect of a firecracker and ignite the ether. Ether is supplied in metal cans for this reason, so that any such explosion would not crack a glass bottle and spill a large quantity. Ether is a fire hazard, not an explosive hazard, and is quite safe when handled intelligently.

It is quite obvious that a few litres of ether could be easily disposed of by flushing it down the drain with a large quantity of water, taking care to be able to be able to handle the fire in the case of a peroxide explosion. One would wear goggles and use stout gloves. A CO2 fire extinguisher should be available, since in case of fire, water would only spread it. The cans should be cooled, perhaps by an icewater bath, before opening. This is not a recommended procedure, only an example of what would be a safe and adequate response to finding old ether in some corner.

What could possibly justify evacuation of surrounding homes and businesses? Well, since they were going to set off an explosion, this might be desirable. However, the main hazard was the explosives and the police, not the ether. Only a complete misunderstanding of the situation can be responsible. If we were dealing with 1000 gallons of ether, it may be a different matter (and an explosion would probably not be a good idea), but in the present case the hazard was very small, and at worst could start a fire if no precautions whatever were taken. In fact, a match would have been as effective, and much less dangerous, though probably not as much fun, as an explosion. Of course, there may have been other chemicals, but explosion would be an equally stupid response.

There have been previous cases of a similar nature. It is hard to believe that laboratory chemistry is still taught in high schools, and with official responses like these it probably will not be for long. The teachers are probably no better informed than the police. In fact, I suspect that even the term "volatile" appearing on the hazmat sheets is not understood by the police to mean simply that the substance evaporates. Water is volatile. They might think that it is a synonym for "explodes randomly" or something like that. Some years ago, the papers reported that "deadly silica" had been found in a school sand pit.

A high school student was recently arrested and jailed for having an "explosive substance" in his locker or on his person. Naturally, what the "explosive substance" was is not stated in news reports. I suspect it was potassium nitrate, a very innocuous oxidizing agent that is not explosive, which has been fed to youths to suppress certain urges. It could also have been potassium chlorate or potassium perchlorate, which are stronger oxidizing agents. Both are stable and not explosive, perchlorate more stable than chlorate, but both are quite dangerous in contact with oxidizable fuels, chlorate very much so. Large quantities of chlorate, tons, have been induced to explode in the past, but it is not much of an explosive hazard. Youths have indeed been injured by ignorant messing with potassium chlorate. It is used in the laboratory for the production of oxygen, by reduction with manganese dioxide, and cannot be considered hazardous. Youths try to make gunpowder on occasion, but never succeed. At most they get a deflagrating mixture that is most hazardous to themselves. If they want gunpowder, they can get excellent double-base stuff by unloading ammunition that is easily available in the United States. Why persecute a kid for saltpeter when ammunition is everywhere?

A more common chemopanic is in connection with "meth labs." Here I am quite out of my element, but I presume the underclass is concentrating the methamphetamine by dissolving it out of over-the-counter remedies using any avalilable organic solvent, and purifying it by crystallization. The solvent can be our friend ether, but almost anything will do to some degree. A recent news report mentions HEET, a gasoline antifreeze (dehydrator). When the news mentions any chemical by name, it is with apparent total ignorance of the properties of the substance. Whatever is used will be volatile and inflammable. There are apparently some chemical operations involving things like match striking strips and "household chemicals," but nothing very poisonous or inflammable, and certainly not explosive. The methamphetamine is closely related to what used to be called benzedrine, and the pills "bennies." Maybe adding a methyl group makes it better--I don't know.

Though a "meth lab" is at most a fire hazard from a gallon or so of solvent, it is treated like a major disaster, with more flashing lights, automatic weapons, closed streets, evacuated residents, hazmat suits, yellow tape, and military swagger. The victims were stripped and showered. This probably makes them a little more wholesome, but the purpose is pure humiliation, part of their American freedoms, which totally disappear in the drug war. The most recent case involved the purchase of an unusual amount of HEET, which set off the raid. There was all the chemopanic that usually exists, and the media were invited to add to the festivities. They found some meth in this case, but it was very disappointing not to be able to find anything looking like a meth lab. Cops in hazmat suits were shown carrying out what looked like buckets of laundry detergent. The guilty were dragged away, because they should have had a meth lab somewhere, and the police probably confiscated anything looking like loot. I think this was all done without the attention of a magistrate, but do not know the procedure.

On the animated television show King of the Hill, Bobby Hill managed to enter a meth lab as his science fair project, thinking he was making "candy." No chemophobia was evident. The chemicals mentioned were ammonia, drain cleaner, and cough syrup. I have heard on PBS that the lethal fumes around a meth lab are ether and ammonia. The ammonia comes from ordinary household ammonia. Ammonia is very irritating in large amounts (I can get a painful whiff when I pour concentrated ammonium hydroxide), but houshold ammonia is not as strong as smelling salts and just wakes you up. Ether puts you to sleep, but again it takes a lot, and you will not breathe it without realizing it (I have experienced ether as an anaesthetic). Neither of these are any major hazard, especially in such small amounts. If you duct tape up your windows now, you will not be bothered by them.

I have recently consulted the Wikipedia article on "methamphetamine" and it improved my knowledge on this subject. In particular, the methods of preparation are mentioned in more detail than in the newspapers. Apparently, there is a real chemical reaction, the reduction (addition of hydrogen) to precursors such as pseudoephedrine, which is obtained from over-the-counter medicines. There are two popular processes, the "red, white and blue" and Birch reduction, using the lithium metal from batteries rather than the usual sodium, which is harder to obtain. The red, white and blue requires the most elaborate lab, using red phosphorus, pseudoephedrine and iodine. The iodine makes HI, which then performs the reduction with the phosphorus as a catalyst. It is not surprising that the reducing conditions may produce phosphine, PH3, a very poisonous gas smelling like rotting fish. However, nothing mentioned is anywhere near usual methods for making phosphine. Any phosphine is probably produce in small amounts, and impurities (other hydrides) cause it to ignite spontaneously in air. Aside from the phosphine and inflammability of solvents, there would not appear to be any significant hazard in this process. Also, no "common household chemicals" appear to be used, either.

As for the other process, it seems to be simpler to carry out and requires a minimum of apparatus. It is said to use anhydrous ammonia, which is just ammonia gas, indeed a very irritating gas. Agricultural sources use 80% aqueous ammonia as well as anyhdrous, which would be a little less hazardous. Household ammonia is a dilute solution, probably completely useless for this purpose. There would seem to be even less hazard than with the red, white and blue process, and again no common household chemicals. Both phosphine and ammonia are very easily detected by odor, and would be quickly blown away by a draft.

The question that arises is whether such responses to non-hazards, and an evident inability to assess risk, shows that the authorities are too ignorant to respond properly to a real threat. They are probably even more ignorant of radioactive threats than chemical ones, and are not able to read hazmat sheets intelligently. There is also an element of militaristic play-acting, with police and fire officers sporting rank insignia of Generals of the Army, and carrying weapons that they barely know how to use, however necessary for their protection in a violent society. The difficulty, as usual, is with the leadership, not with the people on the line. We observe here the very real effect of the total lack of knowledge of scientific matters by the American public, and the consistent low standards of public education. I should be surprised by the ignorance of the news media, but somehow am not. American newspaper writing is to writing as house painting is to painting.


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Composed by J. B. Calvert
Created 2 February 2003
Last revised 16 April 2007