A Bangladesh depot burnt through the night. Did a chemical keep the inferno on?

The BM Container Depot, the ground zero of the devastating fire that has claimed scores of lives, stores chemicals in containers as its normal business activity.

Golam Mortujaand Mitoon Chowdhurybdnews24.com
Published : 5 June 2022, 12:04 PM
Updated : 5 June 2022, 04:38 PM

Among those stores are several blue jars. Some broken jars are labelled hydrogen peroxide, with the chemical formula H2O2.

According to the US National Library of Medicine, hydrogen peroxide is unstable, and nonflammable, but can support combustion as it generates a significant amount of oxygen when decomposing.

Firefighters believe the chemical may be responsible for the runaway inferno that started on Saturday night and has led to the deaths of at least 41.

Fire service officials say they were not told about the presence of chemicals in the depot and still do not have confirmation on what chemicals were used.

Anisur Rahman, deputy director of the Chattogram division fire service, said the officials of the private depot have yet to confirm the types of chemical agents that were stored inside. The fire service applied water to douse the fire initially, as it does on most occasions, he said.

“We definitely would have adopted a different approach if we had been told about the presence of chemical agents in the depot,” Anisur said.

The global standard protocol of dousing a chemical fire, commonly termed a class B fire, is to apply inorganic suppressant foams.

Reporters on the ground have spotted multiple plastic cans, commonly used for chemical storage, with a label of hydrogen peroxide in the area surrounding the depot.

Joint Secretary Md Naid Ali, currently serving as the chief explosives inspector of the Directorate of Explosives, a wing under the Ministry of Power, Energy and Mineral Resources, said hydrogen peroxide is not registered as a combustible chemical agent by the directorate as of yet.

The labels also caution about the flammability of the chemical agent and say these cans belong to Al-Razi Chemical Complex Ltd.

A quick check of the company’s website reveals that the site has been suspended.

However, the company’s LinkedIn page is still active, which confirms that it is a Chattogram-based company, with its office in the city’s Fateyabad area and a factory in the district’s Hathazari Upazila.

The page also confirms that the company produces 150 total points of distribution, or TPD, of hydrogen peroxide of 0%-60% concentration daily at the moment.

Mujibur Rahman, an official of Al-Razi Chemical, who also serves as a director of the depot, said: "These chemical agents were stored at the depot for export."

When approached by bdnews24.com, retired deputy inspector general of Prisons (DIG-Prisons) Maj Shamsul Haider Siddique, who has been working as the factory’s administrative general manager, said he has yet to confirm the status of the chemical in the depot.

“I do not know if they were stored properly or if some were out of date. I have asked my staff to brief me on the current status of the chemical agents stored in the depot. As soon as I get some information, I will inform the news media about it," he said.

"We cannot restore the lives of all the people who lost theirs, but the company is ready to pay for the medical expenses of the injured."

Dr Mohammad Abul Hossain, a professor at Dhaka University’s chemistry department, said multiple factors need to be taken into consideration to determine whether stored hydrogen peroxide will explode or not at some point.

“The factors are how the chemical agent was stored, what was stored beside it, how long it’s been stored,” he said.

Sunanda Rani Barman, a chemist with a multinational chemical laboratory called Intertek, said the combustion of hydrogen peroxide can take place if it comes in contact with fire. 

“Hydrogen peroxide is a highly reactive chemical agent, which starts reacting as soon as it comes in contact with any metal. It needs to be stored in an area with proper ventilation capacity to keep it safe,” she said.

ARMY JOINS IN TO STOP POLLUTION

As many as 250 personnel of the Bangladesh Army joined the work to stop pollution of the sea from the chemicals after they helped the drive to control the fire and in the rescue operations, the Inter-Services Public Relations Directorate said.

Military Police were deployed to keep the situation under control at the depot. A medical team of the army was treating the injured. The 14 members of the fire service and another person were admitted to the Combined Military Hospital in Chattogram.

Chattogram Divisional Commissioner Md Ashraf Uddin said the depot has a drain flowing all the way to Madanhat canal, which is connected to the sea.

Lieutenant Colonel Munira Sultana, commander of the army’s 1 Engineer Corps, said preventing the chemicals from flowing into the sea was their main job now. “But we’re still unaware how many containers had chemicals.”

[Written in English by Adil Mahmood]

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher