From: Dan Charles, NPR
Published April 20, 2013 06:42 AM

Nitrogen Fertilizer Dangers

My first reaction when I heard details of this week's deadly fertilizer explosion in Texas was horror.

My second thought was, "Maybe I shouldn't have pushed to change that headline."


National Geographic magazine just published in its May issue my article about how nitrogen fertilizer has shaped our planet. The article, with Peter Essick's beautiful pictures, describes fertilizer's critical role in providing our food, but also its toll on water, air and wildlife.

When the article went up online, the headline read, at first, "The Curse of Fertilizer." I didn't like it. It seemed only half of the story. I complained, and the headline soon changed to "A Mixed Blessing" — just as news broke that the West Fertilizer Co. plant had caught fire and exploded, destroying much of the small town of West, Texas. The blast killed at least a dozen people — including emergency workers who were trying to fight the fire — and injured more than 100 others.

Investigators can't yet say for sure how the fire started or what exactly caused the later explosion. According to initial news reports, the plant mainly sold a kind of fertilizer called anhydrous ammonia. "Anhydrous," as farmers often call it, is the most concentrated form of nitrogen fertilizer; it's stored under pressure as a liquid, and it's nasty stuff, dangerous to touch or breathe, but it doesn't usually explode.

Other local fertilizer dealers contacted by NPR, however, confirmed that West Fertilizer also sold another form of nitrogen: ammonium nitrate. In fact, the company reportedly told the Texas Department of State Health Services earlier this year that it was storing 270 tons of ammonium nitrate on site.

Ammonium nitrate can explode. In fact, it's been used to make bombs. Timothy McVeigh combined it with fuel oil to blow up federal offices in Oklahoma City in 1995. So at the moment, it's the prime suspect in the West disaster.

Red tractor pulling plow and anhydrous ammonia tank via Shutterstock.

Read more at NPR.

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