Sulfuric Acid Spills in New York State

The HSEES Study

This factsheet presents information on sulfuric acid spills collected by the New York State Department of Health for the Hazardous Substances Emergency Events Surveillance (HSEES) project, a federal study on accidental releases of hazardous materials. The goal of the study is to use information about chemical accidents to identify problems and suggest corrections or improvements that reduce injury and death from future spills. A clearer understanding of how and why sulfuric acid spills occur, and how to avoid them, can improve the safety of workers, responders and the general public through programs such as improved worker training or equipment maintenance.

Sulfuric acid is a dense, oily liquid with a pungent odor. Depending on its purity, sulfuric acid may be colorless to dark brown. Sulfuric acid is strongly corrosive and exposure to the acid or its fumes can cause severe irritation or burns to the eye, skin or respiratory tract. Mixing sulfuric acid and water can be particularly dangerous because the mixing produces a large amount of heat which can cause violent spattering.

Sulfuric acid is a widely-used industrial chemical produced in large quantities. It is used in the production of fertilizers, pharmaceuticals, pigments, rayon, film, iron, steel, explosives and parchment paper; in cleaning, etching, petroleum refining, electroplating and metallurgy; and in lead-acid batteries used extensively in motor vehicles.

Of the 1,462 toxic chemical releases recorded by the HSEES project from January 1992 to December 1995, information was recorded on 113 actual or threatened releases of sulfuric acid in New York State (Table 1). Some of these emergency events caused injuries and loss of work time due to evacuations. Most sulfuric acid spills were reported (Table 2) during manufacture (38%), transport (21%), and at power generation facilities (15%) where the acid is used for cleaning boilers and piping by dissolving mineral deposits. Known causes for acid events reported to the study were equipment failure (47%), and human error (15%). Batteries were the source of acid in 24% of the 113 events. As shown in Table 2, the spill data indicate that injuries and evacuations occurred across a wide spectrum of locations where sulfuric acid is used. Batteries accounted for 15 of the 43 reported injuries.

The following are examples of reported accidents involving sulfuric acid:

  • A battery in an emergency lighting system at a hospital leaked fumes into one of the buildings, a residential treatment center. Forty-eight individuals were evacuated from the building. Six responders and three hospital employees were treated for a variety of symptoms including respiratory irritation and central nervous system effects. The facility was reoccupied the following day.
  • A truck transporting sulfuric acid leaked several gallons due to a faulty seal. The spill, near a toll barrier, caused a three mile stretch of highway to be closed for about four hours. Ten toll collectors reported respiratory irritation and were taken to a hospital for observation.
  • An electrical problem at an unoccupied battery manufacturing facility ignited sulfuric acid fumes, melting the rubber storage vats and causing a 200 gallon spill. Sixteen workers at a nearby plastics business located downwind were evacuated and two of these were hospitalized. The nearby business was evacuated for seven hours for a total loss of 112 hours of work time.
  • A resident used a sulfuric acid drain cleaner and then a lye-based cleaner. Fumes were released in the home and caused respiratory and eye irritation in three family members. The home was evacuated for seven hours.
Table 1
Summary of HSEES Data on Sulfuric Acid Releases in New York State
(January 1992 - December 1995)
Number of sulfuric acid releases 113
Range of amounts released 6 ounces to 46,000 pounds
Number of events involving injuries 17 (15%)
Number of events involving evacuations 18 (16%)
Number of spills with HAZMAT response 64 (57%)
Table 2
Injuries and Evacuations During Sulfuric Acid Releases at Various Facilities
(January 1992 - December 1995)
Facility Type Number of
Events
Number of
People Injured
Number of
Evacuations
Evacuation
Time
People-hours
Military 7 0 0 0
Food/beverage processing and retail 6 2 4 >1362
Manufacturing
chemical and pharmaceutical 22 13 4 >94
circuitry 3 0 0 0
metals processing and metallurgy 7 0 1 3
munitions 5 0 0 0
other (includes battery, aeronautical, leather, paper, plastics) 6 2 1 112
Power generation and supply 17 3 1 50
Private residence 5 3 1 21
Transport
cargo (includes one underground pipeline) 19 7 2 >3
vehicle battery 5 1 0 0
Waste (includes landfilling, car junkyard, composting, recycling and disposal facilities) 6 0 2 >44
Other (includes fire department, parking garages, hospital, and radio station) 5 12 2 1,182
TOTAL 113 43 18 >1,645
1Injuries included respiratory irritation (16), eye irritation (8), chemical burns (8), heat stress (4),trauma (3), central nervous system effects (3), headache (3), skin irritation (2), and palpitations (1). Some people reported more than one type of injury.

2 > means "greater than", some evacuations were of unknown duration.