Greenbank, Explosives, and Tear Gas

One could be forgiven for thinking this story is about the Greenbank Military Camp. But it isn’t. This is a little tale that had to be written and should have been written by others more qualified than me. My sincerest hope is that some environmental scientist or agricultural chemist will read this, contact me, and ally my fear and outrage.

On Australia Day in 2011 my wife and I visited some friends on Ison Rd. for a few beers in the afternoon. I recall sitting in the shade of a custard apple tree, a pleasant chat and a laugh, digging the beauty of the day. I only know this because we kept our old diary around and I checked.

I guess I was too blissed out to pay much attention to that day’s edition of the Jimboomba Times. I do recall reading the article below and subsequently discussing it with others. Like most people around here I was angry about this drum washing down our creek . From where had this drum originated? It hardly seemed something a non-farming resident would have lying around. Whoever had been storing it on their block should have been more aware that it could be washed away in a heavy rain event.  They were – after all – living in sub-tropical Brisbane where summer downpours happen every year.

Life moved on and I didn’t give the chemical drum issue much more thought. The article that appeared in the 2011 Australia day issue is below.

Let’s review here. Two local women discover this drum (one third full), young Ryan stands it upright. They notice an ‘atrocious smell’.They ring triple zero. That was probably one of the most fortuitous decisions these ladies ever made.  Three fire trucks arrive. WTF? Three! The firies check it out and back off in fear. The next day the ‘manufacturer’ arrives to collect it. In the article it is unclear to me but it seems to imply that someone from Logan City Council is then quoted saying – among other things – ‘Metham sodium is a soil fumigant used prior to planting food and fodder crops.  It is moderately toxic and corrosive.’ DERM is contacted and is investigating.  Okay, it’s all under control. Nothing to see here. Move along, move along.

And move along I did.  Until today, September 7th, 2012. A couple of hours ago I had occasion to revisit this article that was kept as part of a growing pile of clippings from the Jimboomba Times concerning horticultural matters in our neck of the woods. I just happened to have the computer fired up beside me so I thought, hmmm, maybe I’ll run this chemical through the old search engines and see what comes up. Over the succeeding few moments I had one of those brain snapping ‘F#%&ing what!?’ jolts that set the heart racing and the mind reeling. No wonder they sent out three fire trucks. The odd reaction of the firies (well, odd to me at any rate) suddenly became crystal clear. They knew exactly what they were doing. This stuff is bad shit. This shit is real bad shit. (Okay, I’ll try to control my potty mouth now)

Before I get to the nitty gritty, I’d like to pose some questions. Why didn’t some young bright-eyed Jimboomba Times Journalist do what I did and google this chemical and do an expose on it?  Why did DERM or whoever it was being quoted in the article describe the substance in this drum as ‘moderately toxic and corrosive’? Was this an accurate description? If metham sodium is a ‘soil fumigant’ used prior to planting, what is it supposed to do exactly and what happens to it once it is mixed in the soil?

My first stop was Wikipedia. This isn’t the greatest source in the world but it gives you a quick idea and usually some useful links.

 

Metham sodium is a soil fumigant used as a pesticide, herbicide, and fungicide. It is one of the most widely used pesticides in the United States, with approximately 60 million pounds used in 2001.[2] Metham sodium is the sodium salt of methyldithiocarbamate.

So this chemical is tilled into the earth to kill all insects, worms, fungus, other plants, and generally any living thing that might be lurking there. Is it just me or is there something seriously wrong with this whole concept? Earth worms are the only organism known to science that do not get diseased. Good soil needs a host of micro-organisms to break down plant and animal matter. As a soil preparation this just seems counter-intuitive to me but I’m no professional agronomist.

Upon exposure to the environment, metham sodium decomposes to form methyl isothiocyanate.[3]

Methyl isothiocyanate is the organosulfur compound with the formula CH3N=C=S. This low melting colorless solid is a powerful lachrymator. As a precursor to a variety of valuable bioactive compounds, it is the most important organic isothiocyanate in industry.[1]

At this point in my initial search I was already getting distracted until I googled ‘lachrymator’.

Tear gas, formally known as a lachrymatory agent or lachrymator (from lacrima meaning “tear” in Latin), is a non-lethal chemical weapon that stimulates the corneal nerves in the eyes to cause tears, pain, and even blindness.

Whoah.  So the drum of metham sodium in a liquid form, when added to the soil eventually breaks down into Methyl isothiocyanate . 

And this chemical is a powerful lachrymator – a chemical that stings the eyes and in strong enough doses could blind you. Great. A ‘non-lethal’ chemical weapon is being dispatched to our farmlands on purpose. That’s insane enough.

But it gets worse.

After my Wikipedia adventure I looked for other sources that could help me understand this chemical. Next I went to a site called www.chemicalbook.com

That sounded like a good respectable source.

ChemicalBook Chinese  Japanese  Germany


ChemicalBook >> CAS DataBase List>> Metham sodium

Metham sodium

CAS No. 137-42-8
Chemical Name: Metham sodium
Synonyms: vdm;vpm;SMDC;geort;metam;monam;vapam;VPM(R);metham;sistan
CBNumber: CB1217557
Molecular Formula: C2H4NNaS2
Formula Weight: 129.18
MOL File: 137-42-8.mol
Metham sodium Property
storage temp. : APPROX -18°C
Water Solubility : 72.2 g/100 mL at 20 ºC
CAS DataBase Reference: 137-42-8(CAS DataBase Reference)
EPA Substance Registry System: Carbamodithioic acid, methyl-, monosodium salt(137-42-8)
Safety
Hazard Codes : C;N,N,C
Risk Statements : 22-31-34-50/53-43
Safety Statements : 26-36/37/39-45-60-61
RIDADR : UN 2811
RTECS : FC2100000
HazardClass : 6.1(b)
PackingGroup : III
Hazardous Substances Data: 137-42-8(Hazardous Substances Data)

Metham sodium Chemical Properties,Usage,Production

General Description
A yellow to light yellow-green aqueous solution with an odor of amine and sulfur that varies in intensity. Boiling point 230°F. Metham sodium has a specific gravity of 1.162. Metham sodium will decompose upon dilution to carbon disulfide, monomethylamine, methylisothiocyanate, and hydrogen sulfide. The decomposition products are flammable and toxic. The acute symptoms of exposure to metam sodium are excessive salivation, sweating, fatigue, weakness, nausea, headache, dizziness, eye and respiratory tract irritation, and skin irritation in the form of rashes. The spillage of a rail car tanker of metal sodium into the Sacramento River caused a major fish kill (over a million trout) along several miles of that river.
Air & Water Reactions
Slow reaction upon dilution produces toxic gases hydrogen sulfide and methylisothiocyanate. This reaction is accelerated by the addition of acid.
Reactivity Profile
METAM SODIUM is a dithiocarbamate. Flammable gases are generated by the combination of thiocarbamates and dithiocarbamates with aldehydes, nitrides, and hydrides. Thiocarbamates and dithiocarbamates are incompatible with acids, peroxides, and acid halides.
Health Hazard
TOXIC; inhalation, ingestion or skin contact with material may cause severe injury or death. Contact with molten substance may cause severe burns to skin and eyes. Avoid any skin contact. Effects of contact or inhalation may be delayed. Fire may produce irritating, corrosive and/or toxic gases. Runoff from fire control or dilution water may be corrosive and/or toxic and cause pollution.
Fire Hazard
Non-combustible, substance itself does not burn but may decompose upon heating to produce corrosive and/or toxic fumes. Some are oxidizers and may ignite combustibles (wood, paper, oil, clothing, etc.). Contact with metals may evolve flammable hydrogen gas. Containers may explode when heated.

If you’re still with me and have understood what you’ve read thus far, you might be feeling a little strange.  I know I am. I know I keep saying it gets worse, but – it gets worse.  When I clicked on this ‘Risk Statements’ I found a list of risk statements pertaining to Metham Sodium:

Risk Statements : 22-31-34-50/53-43

22:  Harmful if swallowed

31: Contact with acids liberates toxic gas

34: Causes burns

50/53: Very toxic to aquatic organisms, may cause long-term adverse effects in the aquatic environment

43: May cause sensitization by skin contact

When I clicked on ‘Safety Statements’:

26: In case of contact with eyes, rinse immediately with plenty of water and seek medical advice.

36/37/39: Wear suitable protective clothing, gloves, and eye/face protection

45: In case of accident or if you feel unwell, seek medical advice immediately (show label where possible).

60: This material and/or its container must be disposed of as hazardous waste.

61: Avoid release to the environment.  Refer to special instructions safety data sheet.

Okay.  Feeling any better yet?  By the time I had reached this point I had a lot more questions than I did answers.  Harking back to the comforting words quoted in the original Jimboomba Times article on advice from DERM (if I read it right):  ‘Metham sodium is a soil fumigant used prior to planting food and fodder crops.  It is moderately toxic and corrosive.’  I mean, sure, this could be construed to be a factual statement if we were talking about a heavily diluted version of metham sodium, but jeez louise, that has to be the mother of all understatements and they forgot to mention the toxic inflammable gasses emanating from the drum. This was washed down Crewes Creek.  What could this have done to the aquatic environment of the Oxley Creek Catchment?

In my brain, if I try to imagine all of the above in the context of that drum sitting on someone’s property right next door and adjacent to seasonal creeks, my imagination runs wild. Even in its proper drum metham sodium is supposed to be stored at 18 degrees C. What I see in my mind’s eye is that I would wager very few locals using this product would be keeping it under refrigeration during the summertime when it gets up to the high thirties out here.

What if it was in a tin shed? It would probably get way beyond 40 in a tin shed on a hot summer’s day in Greenbank. Even under a shady tree this drum would be a worry. No wonder the three fire trucks. Were they worried about flammable fumes? Were they afraid it might explode? And why wait until the next day for the ‘manufacturer’ to arrive on the scene and spirit it away?  I guess we might be forgiven for wanting to ask DERM a few questions. Is this farming?  Is this safe? Is this completely insane?

Kim Downs      7/09/2012

 

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