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Why Is Hydrofluoric Acid So Dangerous for Industrial Workers & Communities?

On February 18, 2015, Torrance, California came inches from calamity. After an explosion at the ExxonMobil refinery, two workers sustained minor injuries and debris was scattered around the surrounding community. While the explosion was dramatic and shook the nearby community, it could have been much worse.

After the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) concluded its investigation of the incident, it determined that workers did not have the proper protocols to follow when deviating from standard operating procedures—something they were doing when the explosion happened. In a statement to the news, the CSB revealed that the accident could have been catastrophic to workers and the nearby community because of a dangerous chemical used at the refinery.

What Was So Dangerous About the ExxonMobil Torrance Explosion?

In its report, the CSB pointed out that the refinery is only two in the state that uses the dangerous chemical hydrofluoric acid during its operation. The blast launched an 80,000-pound chunk of debris through the air, causing it to land just feet from a tank filled with hydrofluoric acid. When it’s under pressure, hydrofluoric acid has the potential to release as a vapor cloud.

Hydrofluoric acid is used in the alkylation units of refineries to produce alkylate, a blending component that helps gasoline burn cleaner. Specifically, hydrofluoric acid is used as a catalyst in the production of this substance. More than a third of the refineries in the United States use hydrofluoric acid as a catalyst. Hydrofluoric acid isn’t just used during gas production, it’s also used to produce refrigerants, herbicides, aluminum, pharmaceuticals, fluorescent light bulbs, and plastics. This means that this dangerous substance is used at facilities across the United States, making deadly industrial accidents a risk in hundreds of communities.

What Does Hydrofluoric Acid Do to People?

The Centers for Disease Control has a webpage dedicated to warning about the dangers of hydrogen fluoride, the substance that turns into hydrofluoric acid once it touches water. It warns that swallowing only a small amount of hydrogen fluoride can affect major internal organs and cause death. Even if a person doesn’t ingest the substance, it is still deadly. Patients exposed to low concentrations of hydrogen fluoride don’t always show the effects of it immediately, so it’s important to make sure it has been cleaned from a person’s body if they might have been exposed to it.

When hydrogen fluoride touches the skin, it makes its way into the tissues of the body. Then, it damages the cells that comprise the tissue and causes them to fail. If hydrogen fluoride is inhaled, it causes lungs to swell, sustain damage, and fill with fluid. Even a small amount of physical contact with hydrogen fluoride can cause burns to the skin.

What Should You Do If You’re at Risk of Hydrofluoric Acid Exposure?

If you’re indoors when hydrogen fluoride is released, it’s important that you leave the building as soon as possible. If you’re outdoors, it’s crucial to leave the area that the chemical was released in to reach fresh air. After a hydrogen fluoride release, officials might trigger a shelter-in-place order for nearby communities. This order is important to follow to prevent exposure to vapors clouds that might have been released during an accident. As mentioned above, even the smallest amount of exposure to this substance can be deadly.

If a person thinks that they’ve been exposed to hydrogen fluoride, they should remove their clothing and wash their entire body with water. Removing clothing is important as it may have hydrogen fluoride in it. Then, they should seek medical attention as soon as possible. If you’ve been exposed to hydrogen fluoride or any other substance because of the negligence of a company or person, call Arnold & Itkin LLP now at (888) 493-1629 for help. Our plant and refinery accident attorneys have recovered billions of dollars for people suffering because of the recklessness of others, and we’re ready to fight for you.

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