Beirut explosion: What is an ammonium nitrate

People help a man who was wounded in a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020. Massive explosions rocked downtown Beirut on Tuesday, flattening much of the port, damaging buildings and blowing out windows and doors as a giant mushroom cloud rose above the capital. Witnesses saw many people injured by flying glass and debris. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Nine months ago, Lebanon witnessed a popular protest movement sweep across the country in response to a litany of long term issues facing the country, most immediate of which was the countrys growing economic crisis. While the largely cross sectarian movement brought a wave of hope for positive change, as the economic situation continue to deteriorate, there was persistent sense of impending doom called coronavirus when on 21st February the country confirmed its first case of Covid-19.

Residents of Beirut awoke to a scene of utter devastation on Wednesday, a day after a massive explosion in a warehouse buildings of the port of Beirut, where 2,700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate was stored. The explosion caused a devastating wreckage with loss of life, loss of shelter, loss of security, loss of business and transportation in a tiny country surrounded by Syria to the north and east and Israel to the south.

The Covid-19 pandemic has accentuated an already devastating economic crisis and exposed deficiencies in Lebanons social protection systems, already crippled by the longstanding political, economic and regional crisis, with the Beirut explosions, the country faces catastrophic consequences post-Covid19.

After the Beirut incident, two questions aroused; What previous incidents have there been and how did the chemical end up in the port? Ammonium nitrate, which Lebanese authorities have said caused the devastating Beirut blast, is an odorless crystalline substance commonly used as a fertilizer that has been the cause of numerous industrial explosions over the decades.      
When combined with fuel oils, ammonium nitrate creates a potent explosive widely used in the construction industry, but also by armed groups such as the Taliban for improvised explosives.

Under normal storage conditions and without very high heat, it is difficult to ignite ammonium nitrate. That is because it is an oxidizer,  it intensifies combustion and allows other substances to ignite more readily, but is not itself very combustible.

The most notorious confirmed ammonium nitrate explosion prior to Tuesday was the 1947 Texas City Disaster. On 16 April 1947, at the Port of Texas City, 2,300 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded, killing almost 500 people. More than 5,000 people were injured and at least 1,000 buildings levelled in the surrounding area. It was the deadliest industrial accident in US history and resulted in the first-class action lawsuit against the US government on behalf of 8,485 victims.
A more recent incident involving ammonium nitrate took place in 2015 when a series of explosions at a chemical plant in the Chinese port city of Tianjin killed 173 people and injured 798.

Among the blasts at the port was the detonation of 800 tonnes of ammonium nitrate. Eventually Chinese courts handed jail sentences to 49 government officials and warehouse executives and staff over their involvement in circumventing and loosening safety standards enabling the storage of dangerous chemicals.

In Lebanon the chemicals originally arrived at Beirut’s port on board a Russian-owned cargo vessel flying a Moldovan flag in September 2013. The shipping monitoring organisation at the time reported that “upon inspection of the vessel by Port State Control, the vessel was forbidden from sailing. Most crew except the master and four crew members were repatriated and shortly afterwards the vessel was abandoned by her owners after charterers and cargo concern lost interest in the cargo”.

As the severity of the global economic impact of the pandemic becomes more and more apparent, the country’s financial woes are set to worsen. With a rapidly devaluating currency and a grim economic outlook, the threat posed by Covid-19 and the ammonium nitrate explosion, it is becoming the lesser of two evils in the eyes of many Lebanese as the explosion posed a greater threat which is likely to exacerbate Lebanons political instability, fuel conflict between rival political factions and aggravate already high tension among Lebanese citizens in regard to food security.

Zanna Samaila writes from Damaturu, Yobe State[email protected]

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