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.

Safety first with green chemistry

One of the most important parts of doing green chemistry is making the chemistry safe. Doing it safe comes in three parts: Firstly, the products that are made should be safe for the consumers. Secondly, and sadly, the neglected or less seriously taken part, is the safety of those who make these products, at any level of the production line – workers and their neighbors. Thirdly, researchers in a laboratory.

Let’s take an example. Let’s say you are an researcher in a lab, or may be just a college student. What will you do if sulfuric acid spills on the floor? Do you have any idea? Good if you do, but if you don’t here’s what you can do:

  • Put sand on it.
  • Collect it in a tray.
  • Add base: NaOH + H2SO4 = violent. So, we are not going to add NaOH. We’ll have to use another base, that is Na2CO3. Even better if you have CaCO3.

Safety education is very important, you see?

Who makes sure that workers are safe? Legislation and organizations do and every country has its own of doing it. Here’s a list of them:

  1. European Union: European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (Read about REACH here.)
  2. UK: Health and Safety Executive and local authorities (the local council) under theHealth and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974
  3. Denmark: The Danish Working Environment Authority
  4. US: National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
  5. Canada: The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS)
  6. Malaysia: Department of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH)
  7. People’s republic of China: Ministry of Health is responsible for occupational disease prevention and the State Administration of Work Safety
  8. South Africa: Department of Labour
  9. India: National Safety Council (NSC)

Although the NSC was set up in 1966, Bhopal disaster that occurred in the year 1984 brought even more attention to the importance of safety, not only in India but worldwide. Human loss is also accompanied by monetary loss for the plants involved. “A safe plant is a more profitable plant.”Walt Boyes. One cannot ignore the financial risk that involves with every accident. In financial terms, these risks are known as ‘contingent costs’. Contingent costs include penalties, remediation, personal injury damages etc. Not to mention the damage that is caused to a company as its corporate image and relationships are at risk as well. Take the example of Hindustan Unilever, when its workers were exposed to mercury in the thermometer factory it owned in Kodaikanal. It shut down in 2001.

Now here we are looking at the bigger picture, to keep it all safe. ‘Life Cycle Analysis’ (LCA) gives us that bigger picture. There are softwares out there that can help a company and there are companies which are already at it.

LCA softwares include:

  1. SimaPro
  2. Umberto
  3. GaBi

You will find some more here:

  1. EPA‘s LCA resources

Companies involved in LCA:

  1. Bristol-Myers Squibb
  2. BASF’s Eco-Efficiency Analysis