The Charleston, Tennessee-based, Wacker polysilicon chemical plant after an explosion released a hydrogen chemical gas in 2017. - Wikipedia

The Charleston, Tennessee-based, Wacker polysilicon chemical plant after an explosion released a hydrogen chemical gas in 2017.


Recently, the Denver Fire Department sent a full hazmat response for two hydrochloric acid leaks. In both cases, nearby buildings were evacuated and vehicle traffic was rerouted around the spill areas.

According to several news outlets, the more serious of the two incidents occurred when a 250-gallon container of hydrochloric acid was punctured by a forklift. The spill happened in an industrial commercial area north of Interstate 70.

Although there were about 20 people working at the site of the spill, there were no reported injuries to those employees or others in the area.

PubChem defines hydrochloric acid as a colorless watery liquid with a sharp, irritating odor. It consists of hydrogen chloride, a gas, dissolved in water that both sinks and mixes with water. It produces irritating vapor.

At room temperature, hydrogen chloride is a colorless-to-slightly yellow, corrosive, nonflammable gas that is heavier than air and has a strong irritating odor. On exposure to air, hydrogen chloride forms dense white corrosive vapors. Hydrogen chloride can be released from volcanoes. Hydrogen chloride has many uses, including cleaning, pickling, electroplating metals, tanning leather, and refining and producing a wide variety of products. Hydrogen chloride can be formed from burning many plastics. Upon contact with water, it forms hydrochloric acid. Both hydrogen chloride and hydrochloric acid are corrosive.

PubChem goes on to say it is used to produce chlorides, fertilizers and dyes, in electroplating and in the photographic, textile and rubber industries. Hydrochloric acid is corrosive to the eyes, skin and mucous membranes.

Acute inhalation exposure may cause eye, nose and respiratory tract irritation and inflammation and pulmonary edema. Acute oral exposure may cause corrosion of the mucous membranes, esophagus and stomach; dermal contact may produce severe burns, ulceration and scarring. Chronic occupational exposure has caused gastritis, chronic bronchitis, dermatitis and photosensitization in workers. Prolonged exposure to low concentrations may also cause dental discoloration and erosion. EPA has not classified it as a carcinogen.

One day earlier, Denver fire responded to two 55-gallon drums of hydrochloric acid that fell off a truck and leaked. No injuries were reported at that leak.

Denver Fire reported that the hazmat team was aided in containing the spill and the vapors by the cooler temperatures. The crews had both leaks and the materials contained within a few hours.

Here are three tips for handling hydrochloric acid leaks.

  1. Prepare for both vapor and liquid containment. Denver called a full hazmat response. Follow Denver’s lead and going big early. In this situation, it is better to have all the resources you need on site. If that means returning unneeded equipment and personnel to service, so be it.
  2. Know the lay of the land. To contain the vapor threat, you’ll obviously need to be aware of wind strength and direction as well as anything that could alter the movement of the vapors. And of course, waterways or sewers in the path of the spilled liquid need to be accounted for, which means considering the slope of the topography.
  3. Communicate with the public. This is true for nearly all hazmat situations, and probably the hardest to pull off. We need to make sure the public is kept away from the scene for their own safety and to prevent them from thwarting hazmat remediation efforts by increasing congestion. We also want to head off any panic. Getting accurate and timely information out through various outlets like traditional print and broadcast media as well as social media is key. Ideally, this will come from one source close to incident command. That is a lot easier to accomplish in a metropolitan area like Denver where the incidents were within its jurisdiction, Denver was the only responding agency and it has public information department. Where an incident or the responding hazmat team are regional, this crisis communication operation needs to be well planned in advance and a part of training drills. As with other emergency tactics, the incident is not the place to try to figure out how to get a quick, concise message to as many people as possible.

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