If you have an ACS member number, please enter it here so we can link this account to your membership. (optional)

ACS values your privacy. By submitting your information, you are gaining access to C&EN and subscribing to our weekly newsletter. We use the information you provide to make your reading experience better, and we will never sell your data to third party members.



Will We Ever Learn?

November 14, 2011 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 89, Issue 46

Thank you for Jeff Johnson’s informative article detailing the final report of the Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) on the fatal phosgene leak at DuPont’s Belle, W.Va., plant in January 2010 (C&EN, Oct. 10, page 34). Particularly striking to me is that DuPont apparently had no companywide procedures in place for the safe handling of phosgene. The operators at Belle rejected common sense (by ignoring repeated phosgene release “false alarms”) and failed to abide by their own maintenance schedules (software bug notwithstanding).

In stark contrast, the operators at another DuPont plant—in Mobile, Ala.—not only had safer equipment in place but also had implemented redundant levels of alarms and personal protection. Even more amazing is that Mobile, but not Belle, chose to install a phosgene containment and scrubbing facility, apparently in contradiction to a (regrettably, all too familiar) 1988 DuPont business analysis that rejected the use of such containment facilities—because it would set a costly precedent. The left hand (and DuPont’s spokesman as well) doesn’t know what the right hand is doing!

Thirty years ago, I safely used phosgene and methyl isocyanate (MIC) throughout my graduate research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, after having been carefully apprised of these chemicals’ dangers. The 1984 Bhopal, India, disaster involving a massive MIC release came as a surprise—how could a respected company like Union Carbide not be handling these chemicals in a safe manner? DuPont’s appalling institutional mismanagement in the handling of phosgene comes as yet another sad surprise.

One would have thought that the lessons of Bhopal would have been taken to heart long, long ago.

By David W. Borhani
Hartsdale, NY



This article has been sent to the following recipient:

Chemistry matters. Join us to get the news you need.