From: Gareth McGrath, Star-News, Wilmington, N.C.
Published October 13, 2004 12:00 AM

Ammonia from Rose Hill, N.C., Poultry Plant's Accident is a Health Hazard

Oct. 13—A combination of nitrogen and hydrogen, ammonia is a common but potentially hazardous chemical that's a staple of many industries in North Carolina.

In the poultry processing industry, the chemical is commonly used for refrigeration. Ammonia also can be found on farms as fertilizer and, in small quantities, in most homes as a cleaning agent. But it is in industrial applications, where anhydrous ammonia can be found in concentrations several times that of your typical household cleaner, that the pungent chemical can become a serious health hazard.

Howard Laurie, with the N.C. Department of Labor-Occupational Safety and Health Division, said short-term exposure to the chemical can result in watering eyes and a burning sensation in the throat and lungs as it literally sucks moisture out of the body.

Exposure to large concentrations of ammonia, or an extended exposure to even small amounts of the hazardous chemical, can cause serious health problems and burns.

"The bottom line is death in severe situations," Mr. Laurie said. "It basically gets inside and eats your lungs."

He said ammonia, especially in industrial quantities, requires special handling and care. The chemical's potential danger also has prompted North Carolina to form a special team dedicated to responding to ammonia incidents.

House of Raeford Farms officials said about 7,000 pounds of ammonia was released Tuesday. It wasn't immediately known how much ammonia the company keeps at its Rose Hill plant.

Tom Mather, a spokesman for the N.C. Division of Air Quality, said the leak occurred while workers were trying to replace a failing valve. "But the valve they had closed to seal the pipe also was bad," he said. Mr. Mather added that Air Quality was investigating the incident to determine if any violations had occurred. Occupational Safety and Health also is investigating.

Inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service also were working Tuesday to determine what food products might have to be stricken due to the chemical leak. Along with the factory floor — where most products would probably be discarded — spokeswoman April Demert said that could include any chicken products in the freezer if ammonia contamination reached those areas.

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