Hydrofluoric acid forms when hydrogen fluoride, a colourless gas, is dissolved in water. Hydrofluoric acid and hydrogen fluoride have a reputation of being among the most feared chemicals that responders can encounter during incidents involving hazardous materials.
In this specialist feature Dr Nigel Blumire, Training Product Manager at the NCEC and Hazardous Materials Commission Secretary for the International Association of Fire and Rescue Services (CTIF) provides invaluable information for first responders.
While exposure can have serious consequences, responders can protect themselves and help casualties survive serious exposures as long as they understand the properties of the chemicals.
Hydrofluoric acid is toxic, corrosive and burns to the skin caused by exposure can be life-threatening. Fortunately, hydrofluoric acid’s dangers are very well understood. Specialist decontamination and antidote kits are available, and responders can take simple measures that will drastically improve a casualty’s chance of survival.
The most important factor in surviving serious exposures is acting quickly. Casualties must be decontaminated as quickly as possible to prevent the hydrofluoric acid from penetrating their skin and an antidote should be applied if this is available. Transferring casualties to a medical facility, where they can receive the necessary support, must be a high priority. With rapid action, casualties can make a full recovery from very severe exposures.
Incidents involving hydrogen fluoride are generally on a small scale, but large-scale incidents have occurred. In 2012, between 8 and 12 tonnes of hydrogen fluoride was accidentally released from a portable tank at the Hube Global plant in South Korea. Over 12,000 people were affected, many of them were treated in temporary field hospitals. Portable tanks of hydrogen fluoride, similar to the one at Hube Global, are encountered in many places so, responders need to understand hydrogen fluoride’s properties and be prepared to deal with potentially high-consequence incidents.
When dealing with an incident involving hydrofluoric acid, it is vital to know the concentration of the spill. For concentrations below 48%, breathing apparatus and appropriate personal protective equipment would be suggested although these recommendations do depend on the situation and amount involved. For concentrations above 48%, it is suggested that gas-tight or liquid-tight suits be worn to protect emergency response teams. As the symptoms of exposure to hydrofluoric acid can be delayed up to 24 hours (depending on concentration), selecting and wearing the correct type of personal protective equipment is vital to ensure that the risk of exposure is minimised. Furthermore, exposure to hydrofluoric acid may result in nerve damage so those affected may not feel any pain.
NCEC recognises the importance of chemical safety training, which is why our training platform, Hazmat Academy, has been established. It provides training for public and private-sector organisations in safe, effective and proportionate response for incidents involving hazardous materials. NCEC runs many courses on chemical use and safety, and has designed a module specifically on hydrogen fluoride safety that covers:
- Physical and chemical properties.
- Hazardous nature and effects.
- Routes of exposure.
- First aid response and treatment methods.
- Exposure prevention.
- Waste disposal.
For more information, go to www.the-ncec.com/chemical-training