Word Count: 3169
Red River Rhine
On November 1st 1986, a fire at the Sandoz chemical warehouse on the Rhine caused the river to run red, and left its ecosystem devastated. This raised awareness in the international forum of the extent of damage that can happen due to chemical spills and prompted substantial changes to the laws surrounding how these facilities operated. In this report I will be looking at the events the unfurled during the spill, the affect that it has had, biologically on the Rhine, and whether the Rhine could even have benefited in some way from this disaster.
The fire stated in the most inauspicious of circumstances. Workers were packaging Prussian Blue (Iron(II, III)hexacyanoferrate(II, III)), a deep blue pigment, using a blow torch and plastic sheet. Unbeknown to them, the compound, which burns with a colourless flame, had caught fire during this process. The fire was first discovered around midnight, and the alarm was immediately raised. Fire services immediately rushed to the scene to put out the blaze, but were greeted by more problems still, as it had grown too large for the usage of foam extinguishers (Angeletti and Bjørseth et al., 1988, pp. 128-131) , which are the traditional treatment for a chemical fire, so water was used instead. The fire had to be extinguished fast, as nearby chemical stores contained phosgene, a valuable reagent in the production of isocyanates, which are, among other things, used in the production of polyurethane tubing. Phosgene is unfortunately also highly hazardous in gaseous form, being odourless up to 0.4ppm, which is four times the level at which it can be fatal (cdc.gov, 1978). The efforts to stop the fire lead to a figure of around 30 tons of agricultural chemicals, mostly pesticides and herbicides, and 440 pounds of mercury into the river (Netter, 1986), and the fumes from the fire left many homes, as far away as the bordering regions of France and Germany, under curfew. Water treatment plants along the Rhine were shut down as they could not efficiently filter out all of the pollutants from the river, meaning that many areas had to have water flown in for some time after the incident. Fortunately, the human cost of the disaster was surprisingly small, at least in the very short term, with only 14 people being admitted to hospital after inhaling the fumes (News.bbc.co.uk, 1986).
The longer term effects are however much more difficult to quantify, due to the many different chemicals flowed from the plant and into the river that day. As such, I will try to focus on a few in particular starting with the what gave the river its red tinge. Phenylmercury Acetate (Anticon) is a compound which has several uses, but its most likely reason for being in the plant is that it is an antitranspirant. At the time of the incident, this and other mercury containing compounds were stained with rhodamine B, a red dye, a harmless red dye (Giger, 2009, pp. 98--111). Antitranspirants are molecules which,...