Geismar disaster: examining the chemicals

Published: Jun. 14, 2013 at 1:58 AM CDT|Updated: Jun. 21, 2013 at 1:59 AM CDT
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Williams Olefins' Geismar facility on fire Thursday (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Williams Olefins' Geismar facility on fire Thursday (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

According to the company's website, Williams Olefins' Geismar facility produces 90 million pounds of polymer propylene and 1.3 billion pounds of ethylene each year.

Ethylene and propylene are big names for two raw substances that are essential in making plastic. Almost every plastic is ethylene-based. Propylene is the next most important base ingredient for plastics.

These two products were in a gas form when a leak seeped out into the air Thursday morning.

Tulane toxicologist LuAnn White says, at that point, an ignition source - possibly something as simple as metal scraping metal - caused these combustible gasses to explode.

Flames reached as high as 200 feet into the air.

"Let's say you put too much lighter fluid on your charcoal - and you light a match and you see - whew! That's all that was volatile in the air and it was gone just like that," White explains.

White says ethylene and propylene are so explosive, the fire must have been intense. "They take these little, small building blocks and they put them together in long chains. When they're in that long chain they become solid and stable, but when they're still in the gas state they're extremely flammable," White says.

She also predicts the flames quickly ate up the gas, and there shouldn't be any residual ethylene or propylene floating around the air.

On the off-chance there is, White says these gasses are dangerous because of their explosiveness, but not because they're toxic if someone were to breathe in a small amount.