Hazardous Materials Containers: Part 4 - Portable Containers

This final installment on hazardous materials containers will look at some of the different types of portable containers that may be found in transportation, storage and use. Portable containers hold small quantities of hazardous materials that are easily...


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This final installment on hazardous materials containers will look at some of the different types of portable containers that may be found in transportation, storage and use. Portable containers hold small quantities of hazardous materials that are easily moved from one location to another. The containers are made of many different materials, including glass, aluminum, stainless steel, steel, plastic, wood, cardboard and lead.

Portable containers are regulated by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) in transportation and governed by ASME, National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards in fixed storage and use. However, a portable container can be made of any material that will hold the contents. In some cases, containers may be reused from some other purpose, which may create an unsafe storage condition.

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Photo by Robert Burke
Portable containers are designed to hold small quantities of hazardous materials that can be easily and safely moved from one location to another. Examples include ton cylinders of chlorine, a poisonous gas

Portable containers include, but are not limited to the following types: wooden and fiberboard boxes, metal drums, fiberboard drums, plastic pails, glass carboys in protective containers, cylinders, ton cylinders, mailing tubes, lead containers for radioactive materials, plastic and multi-wall paper bags. Liquid quantities can range from a few ounces to several hundred gallons. Dry materials may range from a few ounces to several hundred pounds. Gases generally do not have much weight, but require a substantial container to hold the high pressures, causing the tank to be very heavy.

Fiberboard drums and multi-wall paper bags are used for dry materials such as ammonium nitrate fertilizer and calcium hypochlorite, both of which are oxidizers. If the containers become wet during transportation or storage, or during firefighting operations, the packaging material can become impregnated with the oxidizer once the moisture evaporates. If the packaging materials are then exposed to heat or flame in a fire, they can burn vigorously because of the oxidizer imbedded in the container material.

Glass and plastic carboys as well as stainless steel kegs, 55-gallon drums, pint and gallon glass bottles, five-gallon plastic pails and lined drums are used to transport and store many acids and bases and a variety of other hazardous materials. Acids can react quickly with a container, causing container failure and subsequent spill of material if incompatible construction materials are used. Not all acids and bases can be placed in the same types of containers. Damage can occur to a container if different acids or bases are mixed in a container.

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Photo by Robert Burke
Five-gallon metal pails of xylene, a flammable liquid

Plastic and glass bottles, 55-gallon drums, and plastic and metal pails may also be used for flammable, poisonous or oxidizing liquids. Glass and plastic bottles placed inside lead containers are used for some radioactive isotopes. More substantial lead containers are used for high-level radioactive materials because of the shielding required to keep the radioactivity from leaving the container.

Portable container pressures range from atmospheric in the case of drums and bags to ultra-high pressures of 6,000 psi for cylinders. Nearly every type of hazardous material found in bulk quantities may also be found in small portable containers. Additionally, many hazardous materials are not shipped or stored in bulk quantities, but are usually found in small containers. Ammonium nitrate, dynamite, blasting caps, detonation cord, fireworks and other explosives are packaged and shipped in cardboard boxes.

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