Interesting calls - July 2012

Polyurethane foam manufacturing fire

NCEC recently received a call from a fire and rescue service station manager who was dealing with a major fire at a factory where polyurethane foams were manufactured. Police and ambulance service personnel were also in attendance. The station manager was concerned about the chemicals used in the process – isocyanate solutions, polyols and solvents. He wanted advice about the hazards, thermal decomposition products, personal protective equipment (PPE) and decontamination.

Our Emergency Responder advised the station manager that the isocyanate solutions posed the greatest hazard and explained that they were flammable, toxic, irritant, skin sensitising and hazardous to the environment, and that they may be absorbed through the skin. Our Emergency Responder also explained that hydrogen cyanide and nitrogen oxides were likely products of thermal decomposition. The emergency action code for isocyanate solutions is 2X. Therefore, the Emergency Responder advised the use of liquid-tight chemical protective clothing with breathing apparatus and explained that soap and water should be used for decontamination of equipment. In addition, our Emergency Responder liaised directly with the manufacturer of the products to provide the most up-to-date safety data sheets to the fire and rescue service.

NCEC’s chemists work closely with the emergency services and the chemicals industry to provide impartial expert advice in the event of a chemical incident.

Overheated lithium battery

A lithium battery measuring 25 x 20 cm was undergoing testing at an electrical equipment testing company. It overheated on a workbench and released smoke and fumes. The fire and rescue service was in attendance and had evacuated the building. A fire fighter contacted NCEC for advice on the level of PPE required to enter the building and isolate the battery, and the decomposition products.

Our Emergency Responder explained that different types of lithium battery would produce different decomposition products, but inhalation of metal oxides can cause metal fume fever, which has a delayed onset and causes flu-like symptoms. The Emergency Responder recommended suitable PPE including breathing apparatus, in accordance with the emergency action code (4W) for lithium batteries.

Furthermore, our Emergency Responder advised the firefighter that dry agents, such as sand, should be used to smother the battery fire and that the area should be thoroughly ventilated before employees were allowed back into the building.

NCEC can provide guidance to companies on the safe handling and transportation of lithium batteries, and offers an emergency telephone advice service that is dedicated to providing advice on lithium batteries. For more information, please call 0870 190 6621 or email (

UN2927 drums washed up on beach

NCEC recently received a call from a fire and rescue service group manager who was working with the police to deal with 12 drums that had been washed up on a beach and were labelled UN2927 (toxic liquid, corrosive, organic, N.O.S.).  

Our Emergency Responder advised the caller that if the drums had been at sea for some time, it was likely that the original contents had been displaced by sea water, but urged caution as drums were sometimes used to illegally dispose of hazardous waste. The Emergency Responder recommended that people be kept upwind and that investigating officers wear gas-tight chemical protective clothing with breathing apparatus until the exact nature of the drum contents could be established. Eleven of the drums were found to be empty and the twelfth contained engine oil.

Our Emergency Responders are available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to provide chemical advice to the emergency services, helping them to protect people, property and the environment.