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Acetic Acid: Everything You Need to Know

In July 2021, a La Porte chemical spill at the LyondellBasell plant caused the death of two contractors and injured dozens more. Our chemical spill lawyers filed suit against LyondellBasell and other companies for their role in causing the plant leak and harming over 50 employees and contractors.

The main chemical released by a malfunctioning pressurized cap was glacial acetic acid, a common solvent used in the production of cosmetics, polyesters, and other everyday materials. The LyondellBasell plant in La Porte is the world’s third-largest producer of glacial acetic acid, so it’s a key part of the company’s business.

But what is acetic acid? And how can something so dangerous be so common?

What Is Acetic Acid?

Also known as ethanoic acid, acetic acid is a key part of common industrial processes, including the processes that produce synthetic fiber and fabric. A form of acetic acid is also used as a food preservative, and all vinegar contains some amount of acetic acid. Acetic acid is also commonly used in the production of cosmetic products.

The most common use of acetic acid for a consumer will be in cosmetics; it's used to control the pH level of personal care products. Chemical peels use different kinds of acid to create a limited sort of skin burn intended to improve the health and appearance of your face. Acetic acid is one of the industrial chemicals that manufacturers would use to ensure your mask is not excessively acidic and safe to use.

However, forms of acetic acid in vinegar, food preservatives, or cosmetics are typically diluted with water. Glacial acetic acid, however, is not diluted by definition. Therefore, it’s much more concentrated and thus more dangerous.

The Effects of Acetic Acid Exposure

Repeated exposure in small amounts has been known to cause the skin to harden, thicken, and form painful cracks, according to studies done on industrial workers. However, what happened on Tuesday was an acute acetic acid exposure. Over 100,000 pounds of acetic acid was spilled in La Porte, so workers were inhaling vastly higher amounts of it than the human body is able to handle.

Acetic acid exposure can lead to:

  • Respiratory damage
  • Fluid buildup in the lungs (pulmonary edema)
  • Severe burns on the skin

Sufficient buildup of lung fluid can be fatal, as can severe chemical burns.

However useful it might be, glacial acetic acid is a deadly chemical, and LyondellBasell knew that. The success that comes from being the world’s third-largest acetic acid producer comes with a responsibility to store and handle that chemical as safely as possible. Negligence has dire consequences, as we saw this week.

Now, our job is two-fold: make sure those who have been harmed are provided the means to recover from their injuries and make sure this never happens to another person ever again. Arnold & Itkin is already investigating LyondellBasell and the other at-fault parties to do exactly that.

Speak with our firm today in a free consultation if you want to know your options after suffering from toxic exposure. We’ll see what we can do to help. We help clients nationwide in cities such as Houston, Baytown, Sugar Land, Pasadena, Pearland, League City, La Porte, and beyond.


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