Right now, workers on the scene of the train derailment in southwestern Jefferson County are worried about extinguishing the fire that’s been burning since yesterday, likely caused by residual butadiene. But once that’s under control, they’ll turn their attention to two train cars full of a chemical called hydrogen fluoride. And as they’re working to stabilize and drain those cars, it’s likely there will be another shelter-in-place in effect for the surrounding areas. Why? Because hydrogen fluoride is hella dangerous. Here are some things to know:

  1. Hydrogen fluoride turns into hydrofluoric acid when it comes into contact with moisture, and that “moisture” includes human tissue. It easily passes through mucus membranes, and it’s corrosive, which means it can cause severe burns in delicate areas of the body, like eyes and lungs.
  2. It doesn’t take a lot of exposure to hydrogen fluoride for there to be disastrous results. The U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration warns: “Acute inhalation exposures produce severe eye, nose, and throat irritation; delayed fever, cyanosis, and pulmonary edema; and may cause death. Contact of the skin with the liquid may cause severe burns, erythema, and swelling, vesiculation, and serious crusting. With more serious burns, ulceration, blue-gray discoloration, and necrosis may occur [Hathaway et al. 1991]. Ingestion causes destruction of the tissues of the digestive tract and severe irritation of the respiratory tract [NLM 1992].”
  3. According to the CDC, hydrogen fluoride is used to make refrigerants, herbicides, pharmaceuticals, high-octane gasoline, aluminum, plastics, electrical components, and fluorescent light bulbs. Sixty percent of the hydrogen fluoride used in manufacturing is for processes to make refrigerants.
  4. If you’re exposed to hydrogen fluoride, burns may not show up right away. Often there’s pain at the exposure site, and effects won’t appear until 12-24 hours later. Google “hydrogen fluoride burns” for some very gruesome pictures.
  5. Unlike butadiene, hydrogen fluoride isn’t flammable, so there isn’t the same risk for fire and explosion.
Erica Peterson reports on energy and the environment for WFPL. She is also Enterprise Editor.