The explosion in a fertilizer plant in Texas, U.S., on Wednesday — that killed 15 persons, injured 100 people and flattened homes — has brought the fertilizer factory in our backyard into focus.

Mangalore Chemicals and Fertilizers is located much within a populated part of the city. With the recent LPG tanker tragedy still fresh in the minds of people, the thought that comes to the mind is how safe are people living around the factory and whether it poses a threat to people staying in its vicinity.

K.G. Nanjappa, Deputy Director of Factories, Mangalore, told The Hindu that with Mangalore Chemicals and Fertilizers (MCF) “the potential (for leakages) is there but there is an inbuilt safety system”.

D.F. Mariyannavar, Deputy General Manager, Safety, Health and Security, MCF, explains that when a leak happens, it is seen as a variation from the set parameters, and the machine isolates that particular process or it goes into “safe” mode, automatically. “First, design itself will take care, it won’t allow anything to go out of the premises,” he says.

He says the U.S. fertilizer plant accident was “totally different” because that had an explosion as it produced ammonium nitrate. He, however, says he did not know the “root cause” of the explosion.

Mr. Mariyannavar says, “Ammonia and carbon dioxide are our raw materials.” They are not explosive. But when asked if they were unsafe for people to breathe in (if not explosive), he said, “It’s toxic in nature. Always, if you are out of your house, you are in danger zone. Every place… for everything, there must be safety plans.”

In case of minor leaks of ammonia, a precaution that people use is a canister mask or carrying a self-containing breathing apparatus (SCBA). If a large quantity gets leaked, then it can lead to a major catastrophe.

“The best possible remedy is water for ammonia leaks,” says Mr. Nanjappa. Since ammonia dissolves in water, the safety system at MCF uses a flooding system. The whole building can be flooded, he says. The company also uses sprays through direct sprinklers in critical areas.

“There is a good team managing, with a fire-fighting system, with the preparedness,” he said, about the company. Once every six months, they conduct a mock drill, which is carried out in the presence of officials from the district administration. About Mangalore Chemicals and Fertilisers, “There is a good safety system,” he says.

The quantum of ammonia leakage can be measured and the indicator of leaking ammonia is the odour.

Awareness camps

Mr. Nanjappa says that awareness camps are held with the aim of informing the community about what to do in case of ammonia leak. They are also conducted on routes through which ammonia is transported such as from Mangalore to Bangalore so that accidents, if they happen, could be addressed.

Recently, awareness camps were held in Surathkal and Uppinangady, he says.

For the public

If someone finds leaking ammonia, alert the district administration.

Evacuate people from the place to a safer location.

If people are in the danger zone, they must use plenty of water to drench themselves.

Dangers of ammonia

If ammonia is inhaled in small quantities, a person can get dizzy and unconscious.

If ammonia is inhaled in large quantities, it will lead to death. Source: K.G. Nanjappa, Deputy Director of Factories, Mangalore

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