Anhydrous ammonia is a substance little known to the general public. It is most commonly used in farming, where it is a widely used source of nitrogen fertilizer. It is, however, also a very volatile and highly toxic substance, one that can blind, suffocate, burn, and even kill people.
You often can see it being transported in rural areas, usually in tankers or in tanks towed behind pickup trucks. It requires tanks because it needs to be kept under pressure. If any equipment used to transfer anhydrous ammonia fails, there can be a release of gas. That creates a dangerous and potentially deadly situation.
Anhydrous ammonia does not contain water, so when it comes in contact with bodily tissue that contains water — especially the eyes, throat, or lungs — it can burn and scar that tissue. The damage happens on contact, and only worsens from there. The tissues need to be flushed with water immediately to minimize the injury.
If the tissue is not flushed immediately, anhydrous ammonia can damage the lungs or skin severely. If the scarring of either of those organs is severe enough, death can occur.
Most states have regulations requiring that pickup trucks must tow anhydrous ammonia tanks at speeds slower than 25 miles per hour. If a truck crashes and the tank ruptures, it can become dangerous to anyone in the vicinity.
If you are near a crash, you must get as far away as possible as quickly as possible. Thereafter, pay attention to local health and safety officials, and wait for them to give the “all clear” before returning to the area.
In addition, anhydrous ammonia can be released during the transfer process. In a recent case, a young man was filling a tank for a farmer when the farmer — thinking the young man had finished — pulled away while the hose was still coupled to the tank. As the farmer drove off, the coupling broke and sprayed anhydrous ammonia into the air. The young man suffered very serious injuries to his eyes, and he became partially blind.