“…made from all natural ingredients, so you know it’s safe.” — Brian Angliss, mocking an advertisement for an ED product
I once had a roommate who would go off on a rant periodically about plastic that went like this: “Not natural?! What do you mean it’s not natural?! It’s made from petrochemicals, isn’t it? And petrochemicals are made from crude oil, aren’t they? And crude oil? It comes out of the ground, doesn’t it?” And then in a huff, “What could be more natural than that?!” Finally, to put the last nail in the coffin his argument, he would explain, “The second law of thermodynamics prevents you from doing anything that’s not natural.
But this was the person who believed that all deaths were from natural causes. “He was shot in the head. Naturally, he died.”
Most of us have a much more nuanced opinion of what is and what is not “natural.” Even this, though, is a subject of heated discussion.
But is “natural” safe? The only people who make this claim are marketers. And the people fooled by these marketers.
Natural Consumer Products
In the consumer products blogsphere, there is a cottage industry disputing the notion that “natural” equals “safe”, especially regarding nutritional supplements, cosmetics, and household cleaners. Sometimes the bloggers are tackling the broad question of “natural = safe” vs. “artificial (not natural) = unsafe.” Sometimes the question is narrower: “natural doesn’t automatically mean safe.”
Regardless, the argument usually includes a list of unarguably natural ingredients that are well recognized as toxic: the minerals cinnabar (mercury sulfide) and realgar (arsenic sulfide) are both beautiful crystals (What? Crystals? Even better!) that are deadly poisons; nightshade, hemlock, and oleander (all plant-based, so good, right?) are each deadly poisons without any processing; and animal venoms (including certain snakes, spiders, scorpions, salamanders, jellyfish, fish, and even a few mammals) are all recognized as deadly poisons. But they’re natural!
And yet, the idea that natural—or organic, or unprocessed, or green—is safe persists.
What Does Natural Have To Do With Process Safety
Just recently I read two announcements for different process plants that proudly proclaimed they were “green.” This must be from the marketing department or the shareholder services department. Why? Because nothing about either process would lead me to believe that the materials in the processes were benign. They were either flammable, reactive, or toxic—all characteristics that suggest the need for process safety management.
A recent fire at Symrise’s Colonel Island Plant near Brunswick, Georgia demonstrates this. Symrise is a major producer of natural fragrances, flavors, and nutrition and cosmetics ingredients. Their web page proudly points out that they use “Green Chemistry” and are “a leader in renewable materials.”
The facility in Georgia uses crude sulfate turpentine (CST) as a major feedstock. CST is a byproduct of the kraft pulping process for making paper and is certainly renewable. The main component of CST is pinene, one of thousands of a class of chemicals known as terpenes. Pinene is commonly found in conifers, orange peel, and cannabis. α-pinene has a flash point of 91°F and β-pinene has a flash point of 97°F. So, both are flammable liquids covered by the Process Safety Management Standard (29 CFR 1910.119).
About That Fire in Brunswick?
Just before 4 am on Monday, November 7, 2022, there was a fire at the Symrise Colonel Island Plant, followed by an explosion. They called the fire department, which responded. After fighting the fire for two hours, they pulled back to await support from other fire departments, some from across state lines in Jacksonville, Florida. As they pulled back, there were two more explosion. We don’t know what the explosions were—external fire on blocked-in vessels, vapor cloud explosions, something else. We’ll learn following a post-incident investigation.
The explosions were disturbing enough, however, that the county ordered the evacuation out to a 1-mile radius and involving around 100 households as a precaution and ordered two schools to shelter in place. Later in the afternoon, additional households were urged to shelter in place. After the second shelter-in-place announcement went out, Glynn County stated, “We have confirmed that the smell is due to terpenes,” and added, “Terpenes are naturally occurring chemical compounds.” Yes? So? The fire department reported that the fuel for the fire was “hydrogen peroxide pinene.” If that is an organic peroxide, then it belongs to a class of chemical known for its shock sensitivity and easy flammability.
Ultimately, the fire and explosions resulted in no reported injuries to employees or residents. One firefighter was treated for exhaustion, which often results from working steadily in turn-out gear for hours, regardless of what is burning. There were no fatalities.
It Could Have Been Worse
The impact of the fire and explosions at the plant in Brunswick could have been worse. Any large fire has the potential to kill, and thick clouds of smoke like those shared by Glynn County, have the potential to cause serious injury by smoke inhalation. As far as we know, no lawyers have yet convinced the residents of Glynn and Camden counties that they need to file lawsuits for injuries suffered.
It could have been, but it wasn’t worse. Why not? Luck probably had a role to play. I hope it was also because personnel at the plant didn’t pay too much attention to the talk of “natural ingredients,” “green chemistry,” and “renewable materials,” and instead focused on the hazards that faced them. We won’t know what else they should have done or could have done, until the incident investigations are completed, and the results shared. And I hope that the threat of lawsuits or action by various state and federal agencies don’t prevent Symrise from sharing those results. We will all benefit by learning from their experience.
Learning From Experience
Right now, though, we don’t have those incident investigation reports. We have press releases. Honestly, whether from the Glynn County Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency or from Symrise AG, the press release sound like they came from public relations departments more intent on keeping people calm than on explaining to industry professionals what happened.
As tempting as it is to surmise what must have happened, or what could have been done differently, we don’t have the information yet. We do know, however, that the label of “natural,” or “green” did not shield the plant from catastrophe. And it won’t shield anyone else either. So, take another look at your process. Are you letting labels, or worse, familiarity, blind you to hazards that will only seem obvious after something terrible happens? Don’t.