When you dilute sulfuric acid with water, you get battery acid.
This is what the Metro Detroit community of New Baltimore almost accidentally created in their water supply last month, due to a labeling incident.
New Baltimore Water Plant Superintendent Chris Hiltunen said on Sunday July 11 that an employee was pumping out several gallons of what he believed to be fluorosilicic acid, a fluorinated product regularly used to treat potable water, from one barrel to a 70 gallon storage tank that supplies the water supply serving approximately 14,000 people.
âThere was a chemical reaction there,â Hiltunen said. “It warmed up and you could really tell it wasn’t what it was supposed to be.”
Fortunately, Hiltunen said, the plant was shut down at the time, so the chemical was not added to the water supply. Everything has been shut down and chemical supplier Detroit-based PVS Chemicals has been notified.
âPVS had sent a driver to pick up samples of the chemical that had been delivered and they took them back to their lab and tested them,â Hiltunen said. “They found it to be sulfuric acid.”
Sulfuric acid is a corrosive and toxic chemical commonly found in pipe cleaners, fertilizers, antifreeze, batteries and detergents.
The alleged shipment of fluoride to New Baltimore hit four barrels, each labeled as fluorosilicic acid but containing sulfuric acid. It is not known if mislabelled barrels were shipped to other customers and what led to the error.
âIn fact, I’m still waiting for their final report,â Hiltunen said. “It is, in my opinion, unacceptable that it has taken so long.”
Hiltunen said he informed the Michigan Department of the Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) as soon as he noticed something was wrong. EGLE published its first public statement on Thursday August 6.
“The Michigan Department of the Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) recently learned that a bad process chemical was delivered to a public water system and was mislabelled.” , the EGLE bulletin said. âThe incident posed a serious risk to the safety of the water plant operator, the quality of the drinking water, and it was confirmed to cause damage to the equipment. Fluorosilicic acid (fluorinated product) was ordered by the water supply and the shipping containers at the time of delivery were labeled as such.
EGLE spokesperson Hugh McDiarmid told MLive by email that the agency immediately informed the Environmental Protection Agency; PVS; MIOSHA and the National Sanitation Foundation International (NSF), a nonprofit organization that sets safety standards for water treatment.
We also “notified all Michigan water supply systems that were using this provider,” McDiarmid said. âThese other systems reported either that they did not have any product with the same lot number; or that their product has not been mislabelled.
Hiltunen said the New Baltimore Water Department will need to replace a storage tank and pump worth about $ 10,000. No injuries occurred.
âWe were very fortunate that production at our water treatment plant was shut down when we transferred the chemicals,â Hiltunen said. âNothing had the possibility of entering the drinking water network.
âBecause of the chemical reaction, we knew exactly what had happened and when it had happened. That was my statement to the chemical company: if there hadn’t been a chemical reaction. Then what ?
McDiarmid of EGLE said if sulfuric acid was present in the water supply at detectable levels it would “smell like rotten eggs.”
âEGLE responded immediately to ensure that other water supply systems that use the same supplier who sent the mislabelled product are aware and are checking their inventory,â he said. EGLE “sent the notice to all water systems as a precaution, even those that do not use the supplier that shipped the product.”
Water treatment companies, including chemical suppliers, are monitored and held to strict safety standards set by NSF, independent third-party, not-for-profit certification body which monitors municipal water in collaboration with EGLE.
âThis is the first time EGLE has heard of a problem of this nature,â McDiarmid said. “This is an extremely rare opportunity.”
MLive has requested and is awaiting comments or additional details from the chemical supplier and NSF.
Hiltunen said the chemicals supplier’s findings will be passed on to EGLE. New Baltimore has purchased water treatment chemicals from PVS for over 25 years. Based on his preliminary conversations with the supplier, Hiltunen said he was told fluorosilicic acid was delivered to PVS by tanker. It is then redistributed by PVS into smaller barrels for distribution. It is not believed that the tanker mislabeled the contents, but that the error occurred during the PVS inventory.
âDuring the reconditioning process something happened and they stopped their fluoride processing and started processing sulfuric acid,â he said. “Some time in this period” the error has occurred.
Concentrated sulfuric acid is “extremely corrosive and can cause severe burns when not handled properly” according to MSDS online, a website specializing in providing hazardous materials safety information and handling advice. âThis chemical is unique in that it causes not only chemical burns, but also secondary thermal burns due to dehydration. This dangerous chemical is able to corrode skin, paper, metals and even stone in some cases.
More about MLive:
Meet Michigan Residents Affected by PFAS in Drinking Water
Setting of drinking water limits for PFAS