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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A cylinder in storage should have a protective valve cap in place over the valve and be secured in place or to a cart. Exposed valves can be sheared off if a cylinder is knocked over. Cylinders in use should also be secured in place. Cylinders should never be moved or transported with the regulator in place; it should be replaced with the protective valve cap. Fire code inspectors should watch for the proper storage and use of high-pressure cylinders during inspections. While many compressed gas cylinders are painted, there is no reliable color code system to identify the contents from the color of the container.

Ton containers (2,000-pound capacity) are used most often for storing chlorine and sulfur dioxide gases. They are also used to store military blister agents. These cylinders can be found in water-treatment facilities, waste-treatment plants and swimming pools. They are shipped on specially equipped rail and highway vehicles.

Acetylene is a common flammable gas usually associated with welding operations in conjunction with gaseous or cryogenic oxygen. Acetylene is a highly flammable gas with a wide flammable range (2-80%), which is quite unstable at elevated pressures above 15 psi. The acetylene tank is a small "chunky" tank specially constructed to contain this highly unstable gas. An inert material such as fullers earth or lime silica is placed in the acetylene container to absorb acetone, a solvent used to dissolve the acetylene gas and maintain its stability. The acetone keeps the acetylene in suspension preventing accumulation of pockets of high-pressure gas thus stabilizing the explosive tendencies of the gas. An acetylene tank should never be stored or transported on its side, as the acetylene gas can separate from the acetone and produce a potentially explosive situation.

Because of their relatively small size, portable containers can be found in almost any type of transportation mode including private vehicles. They can also be found in most types of occupancies including residences and garages. The quantities of materials present don't create a high level of risk to the community. However, they certainly can be a hazard to response personnel, especially if we are not looking out for them.


Robert Burke, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is the fire marshal for the University of Maryland. He is a certified Hazardous Materials Specialist, and has served on state and county hazmat response teams. Burke is a veteran of over 18 years in the fire service, in career and volunteer fire departments, having attained the ranks of lieutenant and assistant chief, and served as deputy state fire marshal. He has an associate's degree in fire protection technology and a bachelor's degree in fire science, and is pursuing a master's degree in public administration. Burke is an adjunct instructor at the National Fire Academy. He is the author of the books Hazardous Materials Chemistry For Emergency Responders, published in 1997, and Counter-Terrorism For Emergency Responders, published in 1999. Burke can be reached on the Internet at robert.burke@worldnet.att.net.