Two hospitalised after Rhodia’s toxic gas cloud

A fire at a Rhodia chemical works near Birmingham on 2 January released a cloud of poisonous gas that drifted across an urban area. Emergency services were put on alert as roads were closed and the public warned to stay indoors.

A fire at Rhodia Consumer Specialities’ chemical works in Oldbury produced a cloud of toxic gas over parts of the West Midlands on 2 January. Although the fire was brought under control by the fire services within a couple of hours, the cloud forced the closure of local roads and caused health effects in four people. Two Highways Agency officers were taken to hospital.

The Environment Agency said that about 25 kilograms of phosphine was released from the plant, which makes phosphorus-based chemical intermediates.

The gas ignited on contact with the air, producing a dense mist of phosphorus pentoxide and phosphoric acid. Phosphine and phosphorus pentoxide are highly toxic while phosphoric acid is corrosive.

The emergency services closed roads around the plant, warned the public to stay indoors and advised hospitals to prepare for casualties with breathing problems, watering eyes and irritated skin.

The incident had much less serious consequences than initially feared. The cloud was blown south towards the M5 and dispersed about three hours later. Two Highways Agency officers were taken to hospital after becoming nauseous and two local residents were also affected, the West Midlands Ambulance Service reported.

Rhodia’s site manager Tom Hamnett confirmed that the affected process has been stopped following minor damage to the plant. The cause of the incident is unknown and is being investigated by the Health and Safety Executive and Environment Agency.

The fire was only the latest problem to affect the site, which is regulated under the Control of Major Accident Hazards (COMAH) legislation.

The Health and Safety Executive served a prohibition notice on the works’ phosphorus oxychloride plant in June 2007 following an incident.

Rhodia Consumer Specialities was also fined £19,000 in October 2003 for the loss of 22 tonnes of polyphosphoric acid from the Oldbury works in April 2002 (ENDS Report 345, p 51 ). Many causes of the incident, such as failure to use best available techniques to prevent spills and poor knowledge of environmental law, were identified in an Environment Agency audit produced five years earlier.

A leak of chlorine at the firm’s Staveley works in Derbyshire resulted in a £100,000 fine in February 2005. Six workers were hospitalised due to the leak (ENDS Report 361, p 59 ).

The company was also given a £40,000 fine in August 2004 for spilling 350 tonnes of sulphuric acid onto the ground and into sea on the Cumbrian coast (ENDS Report 355, p 62 ).

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