Hazardous Waste Management Gone Wrong
The massive explosions in Tianjin, China were an unfortunate reminder of not only the deadly consequences hazardous materials can have, but also a ringing endorsement for the need of proper hazardous waste management.
While the cause of those explosions is still under investigation, the company that owned the warehouse—Rui Hai International Logistics Ltd.—was in the business of storing and transferring dangerous chemicals.
And while there still isn’t a consensus on what exactly those chemicals were—or how exactly the explosions occurred—it’s clear that they were potent enough to cause catastrophic damage.
What, then, can be learned from this tragedy? Before that can be answered, let’s first revisit some basic knowledge.
Types of Hazardous Waste by Characteristic
Hazardous waste is typically identified by its dangerous properties or characteristics, which usually fall under four main categories: corrosive, ignitable, reactive, or toxic.
Corrosive: These materials (think acids) wear away at substances and can destroy them by doing so.
Ignitable: Materials that can easily erupt into flames (and potentially produce harmful vapors).
Reactive: Can explode or create poisonous gas when combined with other chemicals.
Toxic: Toxic substances or materials have the ability to poison humans or other life if swallowed or absorbed.
Given these traits, it’s easy to see why it’s incredibly important to know what kind of waste you have and why proper storage and disposal is imperative.
Small amounts of hazardous waste being released may not cause an impact at all, but large releases or a lot of small releases over a period of time have the potential to contaminate the environment and have serious health implications.
Due to those reasons, hazardous waste management is of great importance.
Proper Hazardous Waste Management
In the instance of the Tianjin explosions, it has been reported that the owners of the warehouse violated safety standards as recently as 2013.
The report states that some of the containers being inspected did not have the correct danger labeling on the packaging.
As you can imagine, that’s a problem.
Not only does incorrect labeling prevent those working within the warehouse from properly identifying containers when moving them or deciding where to store them, but it prevents emergency responders from know what kind of contents they’re dealing with.
The latter was seemingly an issue for the responding firefighters in Tianjin.
Reports from the scene indicate that the initial response was to put out the chemical fire with water, which is what led to the second, larger explosion. Had the firefighters been able to properly identify the materials within the warehouse, they may have taken a different approach when attacking the blaze.
Here in the United States, failing to clearly label and mark containers is a RCRA (Resource Conservation Recovery Act) violation and you can see why. Adequate education and knowledge of the materials being housed in a location is crucial.
Additional issues to think about when storing hazardous materials are whether or not a contingency plan is in place (and is current) and whether or not too much material is being stored on site.
The incident in China is a stark reminder of why it’s so important to follow RCRA regulations and why hazardous waste management is not a joke.
Whether it’s storing hazardous waste or lethal chemicals, cutting corners may seem easier and more cost-effective, but it could lead to devastating events. Doing things the correct way not only mitigates the risk of accidents, but it shows that you care beyond your company’s bottom line.