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Published on November 28th, 2013 | by Don Lieber

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Hydrofluoric Acid — #10 In "Top 10 Toxic Ingredients Used By The Fossil Fuel Industries" Series

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November 28th, 2013 by

This is the first part of a 10-part series on the “Top 10 Toxic Ingredients Used By The Fossil Fuel Industries.” Read, share, and check in tomorrow for the next part, which will focus on radon.

10. Hydrofluoric Acid (HF) / Hydrogen Fluoride

toxic oilFossil Fuel Source: Oil and Gas

Hydrofluoric acid (HF) is “one of the most dangerous acids known.” HF can immediately damage lungs, leading to chronic lung disease; contact on skin penetrates to deep tissue, including bone, where it alters cellular structure. HF can be fatal if inhaled, swallowed, or absorbed through skin.

The senior laboratory safety coordinator at the University of Tennessee said, “Hydrofluoric Acid is an acid like no other. It is so potent that contact with it may not even be noticed until long after serious damage has been done.”

Hydrofluoric Acid is a common ingredient used in oil and gas extraction.

Numerous studies, including recent ones conducted by both The Center for Public Integrity (CPI) and the United Steelworkers Union (USU) cite the oil industry’s abysmal safety record as a high risk factor for a major HF accident; over the past decade, over 7,600 accidental chemical releases from refineries have been reported by the industry. In the past three years alone, a total of 131 “minor” accidents involved HF.

One major refinery’s experience speaks volumes about the fossil fuel industry’s disregard for safety and public health: the BP Texas City refinery. This single refinery has accumulated over 600 safety violations, which, inevitably, led to tragedy: in 2005, a series of explosions at the refinery killed 15 people and injured hundreds more.

This tragedy, however, was not entirely unforeseen by BP. Internal BP memos subsequently revealed that, in the days before the explosion, refinery managers in Texas lamented that “safety is not viewed as the #1 priority” (by company executives in London). Indeed, the memos discussed the likelihood that the refinery “would kill someone.” (This is the same BP which federal investigators found responsible for numerous safety failures leading to the massive 2010 Gulf of Mexico spill.)

And it isn’t only the workers who are at risk. Public health officials have long warned that HF accidents at oil refineries have a high likelihood of causing “mass casualties.” within the civilian population at large.

50 US refineries use HF, many in close proximity to highly populated urban areas such as Houston, Memphis and Philadelphia. THE CPI study estimates some 16 million people are within dangerous range of an accidental HF release — HF travels easily in the air, at great distance.

And there’s more: the Center for American Progress listed HF as the nation’s second most dangerous industrial chemical vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

The fossil fuel industry is subject to little regulatory oversight. Federal rules for the use of HF in oil and gas refining are almost non-existant; there is no mention of the topic in the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) recent draft rule for well stimulation methods with HF use (including fracking).

The oil and gas industry spends considerably on lobbying and political campaign contributions to ensure the rules remain lax. In 2013, so far, it has spent over $100 million in federal lobbying, ranking third among ALL US industries in federal lobbying. In the past 15 years, the oil and gas industry has spent approximately $1.4 BILLION in federal lobbying. The energy exercises further influence through additional massive contributions to the political campaigns of friendly US congresspersons. It has contributed millions of dollars to the campaigns of James Inhoffe, Mitch McConnel, David Vitter, John Boehner, Ted Cruz, Roy Blunt, and others, all of whom have proven loyal to the industry by consistently voting against proposed new safety and public health oversight and regulations.

The lack of regard to the enormous risks to the public posed by HF in fossil fuel production was summarized by a spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Association, one of the largest oil industry lobby groups in the nation, who, when asked to respond to questions about HF safety, simply said: “We use HF acid because it’s effective.”

Note From The Author

There are many reasons to reject fossil fuels now, after 200 years of their reign as society’s primary energy source.

History will articulate both the benefits provided to human society derived from fossil fuel energy technologies from 1750 to the present — and the extensive costs.

In addition to transportation, electricity, industrial power, military, and medical applications; fossil fuel technologies are also a core element behind war, political unrest, human rights abuses, extreme and permanent environmental degradation, and human disease.

Perhaps the most important historical legacy of fossil fuels, however, will be their collective role as the chief protagonist behind what may be the most urgent long-term global crisis in human history: greenhouse gas–induced climate change.

It is my hope that this list, focusing on immediate public health risks (apart from climate change), serves as an adjunct to the myriad other reasons to end the use of fossil fuels — all of them — completely.

The ten ‘ingredients’ listed in this article are not intended as an exclusive list. The major fossil fuels (oil, coal, gas) each use hundreds, if not thousands, of chemicals — often not disclosed — many of which are highly dangerous to human health. Attempting a comprehensive list of all the harmful chemicals used willingly by the oil, coal, and gas industries would be far beyond the scope of this blog series.

This article, rather, represents some of the more commonly cited toxic ingredients in the public literature; a ‘starting point’ in reviewing the overall public health dangers inherent across the spectrum in all three major fossil fuel extraction industries: oil, coal, and natural gas.

Don Lieber
New York City
November 2013

Stay tuned for the remaining 9 of the top 10 toxic ingredients used by the fossil fuel industries. Tomorrow’s post will be on radon.

Image Credit: fossil fuel risk via Shutterstock

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About the Author

Don Lieber has written extensively on international human rights, war and disarmament, and climate justice. His writings have have been published by the United Nations, The Associated Press, The International Campaign to Ban Landmines, The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, DeSmog Blog, E-The Environmental Magazine, and others. He is a frequent contributor to PlanetSave. When not writing about climate change, he plays bass for the NYC-based band "Wifey".



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