NMSU professor talks about dangers of chemicals used in fertilizers

Thursday, April 18, 2013 - 9:11pm

Fertilizers are a multi-billion dollar a year industry and normally safe, according to a New Mexico State University chemistry professor.

22-year Chemistry Professor Dr. WIlliam Quintana at NMSU said chemicals can be dangerous and should be handled accordingly.

"My motto for my classes is safety first, safety second, safety always," Quintana said.

Quintana said the initial fire was likely the cause of the explosion at the fertilizer plant in West, Texas near Waco.

"Fire will accelerate the chemical reaction because chemical reactions occur faster at higher temps and a fire will accelerate the decomposition of ammonia," Quintana said.

Ammonia is one of the primary chemicals in making fertilizer and is combined with nitric acid to make ammonium nitrate.

At high temperatures Quintana said ammonia is highly flammable and also toxic.

He said at room temperatures ammonia is typically a gas but it's usually stored as a liquid at temperatures well below freezing.

"Typically in order to minimize risk it's kept refrigerated," Quintana said.

In Mesquite, Helena also handles chemicals but doesn't produce any of them locally.
"I've never heard anything bad about Helena," said Rose Perez, a Mesquite resident of 20 years.

Company officials said they receive prepackaged supplies and distribute them in the area to only licensed users.

"We've bought chemicals there for our farm, fertilizers and they will not sell any chemicals unless you're licensed for them," Perez said.

The company doesn't even have ammonia or ammonium nitrate at its Mesquite facility.
Helena officials said they don't even handle large quantities of chemicals at the Mesquite location.

Quintana said safety is always the number one priority for his classes and that has been emphasized even further.

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