Inequality in labeling chemicals


As a student who has studied chemicals, observing tankers carrying chemicals interests me and may also interest you after you read this post. If you haven’t observed these tankers closely, may be you will now. By knowing the symbols on these tankers, one can prevent injuries, not just in chemical factories but also in offices, homes and places where chemicals are used. This is because it is not only the tankers that bear such information, other products have them too.

Symbols 2The picture above is of NH3 on NH17. NH3 is the chemical formula for ammonia. It was shot on one of India’s national highways NH17, one of the busiest and 7th longest in the country. The picture shows all kinds of indicators that are on the tanker. These are:

  • rear lights -to indicate the speed of the vehicle
  • a triangle with a light reflective material on it – a warning of a vehicle ahead; shines in the dark when a vehicle behind it uses headlights
  • a number plate – identification of the tank
  • name of the chemical the tank is carrying
  • two hazard symbols (aka pictograms)- skull-crossbones and a diamond placard

Tankers like these are a usual sight on these roads, considering India is the 2nd largest producer of ammonia in the world. It’s not surprising because India has a huge population and it is also the 2nd largest in terms of agricultural output. The tankers are especially striking when they give off odor. We all know ammonia doesn’t smell nice. Cosmetic products try to avoid it. They often spell out on their product ‘No ammonia’ or ‘Ammonia free’. It is also used in fertilizers, cleaning products, explosives, dyes, water purification and a lot more.

Quick facts about ammonia:

  • Poisonous: For short-term exposure, a 2,500 ppm (0.25%) concentration in air may be fatal within 30 minutes.
  • Fire hazard: At high concentrations and high temperature
  • Water polluting: Easily dissolves in water and forms ammonium hydroxide
  • Colorless gas
  • Corrosive

Deciphering the symbols in the picture:

We can learn something about the chemical from the symbols on the tanker. The tanker is carrying liquefied compressed ammonia gas. A liquefied gas is a gas when packaged under pressure for transport is partially liquid at temperatures above – 50 degree C. But if that is so, it needs cooling and I wonder how that is done in these tankers. Gay-Lussac’s law says that as the pressure goes up, the temperature also goes up, and vice-versa. So, since it is pressurized, it is at a lower temperature too, so no external cooling needed. The skull-crossbones symbol is that of a toxic/poisonous chemical and a diamond placard with a number on it needs a bit of an explanation. The fire symbol on the diamond means that it is a flammable substance. The number on the diamond signifies which class the chemical belongs to, which in this case is Class 2. Class 2 substances are gases. I apologize for not taking the side-picture of the tanker, else we could have had more to decipher.

Mind you, the hazard symbol in this picture is an old convention. A pictorial list of old hazard symbols can be found here. This is where we speak about inequality in labeling chemicals.

Inequality in labeling chemicals:

In Rio de Janeiro in the year 1992, at the UN Conference on the Environment and Development, a consistent system was developed so that if anyone from any part of the world sees these symbols, they will know what it means irrespective of the country they belong to. This system was called the Globally Harmonized System (GHS). This system makes things easy to decipher.

In the year 2012, India was supposed to issue rules to implement GHS but there was no news after that. Wonder what happened. I’ll let you in on a scary memory though. My first experience of watching a tanker spill was while watching the movie Terminator. Here’s the scene I’m talking about:

It feels good to be more informed about things around us, don’t you think?

Further reading:

Indian Chemical Laws and Regulation:

  • Rules under Environment (Protection) Act, 1986
    • Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemical Rules, 1989, 2000
    • ™Chemical Accidents (Emergency Planning, Preparedness and Response) Amendment Rules, 1996
    • ™Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991, 1992
  • Health & Safety Related Laws & Regulations:
    • ™Factories Act, 1948, 1987
    • ™Explosives Act, 1889
    • Gas Cylinder Rules, 1981
    • ™Petroleum Act, 1934, Rules, 1976
    • ™Motor Vehicle Act, 1988

An excellent compilation of information on the laws is presented by K.P. Nyati, Confederation of Indian Industry, New Delhi, India in a presentation called ‘Laws & Regulations for Management of Chemicals in India‘.

According to Ministry of Environment and Forests, India, following rules are to be followed while labeling tankers carrying hazardous chemicals:

An occupier shall not handle a material which is hazardous for supply and transport unless the material is clearly marked in accordance with the following requirements, namely:

  • diamond placard (read all its specifications here)
  • on an orange rectangular panel (read all its specifications here), to be placed immediately adjacent to each placard displaying therein the United Nation number for the goods in black digits.  (UN number is a four digit serial number assigned to the substance under the United Nations system.)
  • the product name including the trade name, substance name, systematic chemical name and chemical identifiers such as Chemical Abstract Number, as applicable;
  • the name and address of the manufacturer, importer, wholesaler or other supplier of the material, and including of any deemed necessary for traceability of the material to the manufacturer or producer;
  • an emergency telephone number manned in Hindi or English twenty-four hours must be indicated on the container, iso-container or tanker; (Now you remember this one very clearly.)
  • The following information on the substance, if it considered hazardous, namely:
    • proper shipping name
    • United Nation number
    • hazard class
    • secondary hazard
    • packing group
  • the labels shall be displayed on at least two sides of the container, iso-container or tanker or transport unit

You can read the entire document here. The document also contains a list of chemicals as per Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemical (Amendment) Rules, 2000. Similar laws are present in the US.

Glossary of Label Elements Included in GHS, EPA

Globally Harmonized System (GHS), Sigma Aldrich

Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals by Sunanda Kadam, Intertek


Edit: (10/10/15) But if that is so, it needs cooling and I wonder how that is done in these tankers. Gay-Lussac’s law says that as the pressure goes up, the temperature also goes up, and vice-versa. So, since it is pressurized, it is at a lower temperature too, so no external cooling needed.


8 thoughts on “Inequality in labeling chemicals

  1. At RTO, most of these symbols are shown during drivers license test. But people memorize them for the sake of getting through test, without giving a thought as to why they are made to read it on the first place. Govt must find an alternative for it.

    1. Too bad I don’t remember any of the symbols shown at the RTO myself. Thanks for pointing it out. May be we can reach out to organizations like Save Life Foundation.

  2. The symbols tell us that the tanker truck transports a toxic and flammable gas (# 2).
    Good that the name of the chemical is written in English: Liquified Ammonia.

    In general, if I were in charge, Risk- and Safety-Satements should be a required component of the labeling of all chemicals, worldwide.

    I am surprised that the number plate is hand-written!

    Hopefully, the valves on these tanker trucks are inspected regularly & exchanged if found deficient. Just in case, I will stay more than 10 feet away. :-)

    And use my horn when over-taking it. :-)
    “Horn O-K Please” it must be very noisy on Indian Roads.

    1. I agree, Dirk. Safety should be of a uniform standard. Where you are, the chemicals and their effects are going to be same right?

      I think there is a rule that asks to stay a certain feet away from such tankers, I think it is 15 feet. I’m not sure where I read it though.

      Noisy? I don’t know. Someone who is new to these roads might know the difference actually. For example, if you stayed at a place for years. A place where the airport is nearby. After many years you won’t even notice the roar of the airplanes.

  3. This is a big thing here in uk. Correct labelling.. and if not labelled properly people are fined and it does the trick..

    need to be put in india too as it is very hazardous

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