Two persons died and several took ill in a major ammonia gas leakage at the Indian Farmers Fertilizer Cooperative Limited (IFFCO) unit at Prayagraj Tuesday night. The victims had come in contact with the concentrated form of ammonia gas that leaked heavily from the plant.
A tri-hydroid of nitrogen (NH3), ammonia is a building block for ammonium nitrate (NH4NO3) that is used in agriculture as a high-nitrogen fertiliser.
According to experts in Chemistry, ammonia is stored for industrial use in liquid form under high pressure or in gaseous form at low temperature, as was the case in the IFFCO unit where the accident took place.
How ammonia gas affects the human body
Aravind K, an Assistant Professor in Chemistry at Saint Berchmans College, who is also a YouTuber and a public speaker in Science, said ammonia, even in moderate concentration, can cause irritation to eyes, skin, nose and throat.
The professor further said ammonia interacts immediately upon contact with moisture present in the skin, eyes, oral cavity, respiratory tract to form ammonium hydroxide, which is very caustic and disrupts the cell membrane lipids, ultimately leading to cellular destruction. “As cell proteins break down, water is extracted, resulting in an inflammatory response that causes further damage,” he added.
Vijay Bahadur Misra, a Chemistry lecturer at a government college in Ayodhya, says ammonia, which is highly soluble in water, is found in soil, air, and water; it is naturally present in the body and secreted by the kidneys to neutralise excess acid. However, it is highly diluted when in the environment and does not affect the human body to a noticeable level, he adds.
Speaking on the impact of ammonia on human body when inhaled in excess, Professor of Respiratory Medicine at the King George Medical University (KGMU) in Lucknow, Dr Rajeev Garg said the gas is toxic and affects the lungs with a possibility of causing chemical pneumonitis — inflammation of the lung caused by aspirating or inhaling irritants.
In simple terms, what happens in that instead of oxygen the person starts inhaling ammonia, causing oxygen deficiency, Garg adds.,
In such cases, the cause of death is always suffocation, he said, adding that in the case of Tuesday’s incident, the victims must have been very close to the point of gas leak.
What are main uses uses of ammonia
Ammonia is critical in the manufacturing of fertilizers, and is one of the largest-volume synthetic chemicals produced in the world. More than 80 per cent of ammonia made is consumed in the manufacturing of fertilizer, and most of the remainder goes into the production of formaldehyde.
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