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Beirut explosion: What is ammonnium nitrate and how dangerous is the chemical compound?

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Lebanon has been plunged into national mourning following a huge explosion in Beirut that killed 100 people and injured more than 4,000 others.

The blast on Tuesday sent shockwaves through the capital, destroying dozens of buildings and shattering windows across the city after being triggered by a fire at Beirut’s port, which exploded into a mushroom cloud.

Officials have linked the explosion to some 2,750 tonnes of confiscated ammonium nitrate stored in a warehouse at the port for several years.

An investigation is now under way to find the exact trigger for the explosion.

The blast on Tuesday sent shockwaves through the capital (AFP via Getty Images)

So, here’s what you need to know:

What is ammonnium nitrate?

Ammonium nitrate is a highly soluble, highly reactive naturally occurring white crystalline solid.

It is commonly known as saltpetre.

The chemical is not explosive on its own but is an oxidiser, meaning it draws oxygen to a fire and therefore makes blazes much more intense.

What is it used for?

Ammonium nitrate has a number of different uses, but it is mainly deployed as an agricultural fertiliser – because it is a good source of nitrogen for plants – and as a key component in industrial explosives.

The chemical is inexpensive to manufacture and relatively stable under most conditions, making it a popular alternative to other, more expensive nitrogen sources.

It is also a key component of industrial explosive of ANFO, (ammonium nitrate/fuel oil), which is widely used in, quarrying, mining and civil construction.

More than 4,000 people were wounded by Tuesday’s explosion (AFP via Getty Images)

Is the chemical compound dangerous?

On its own, ammonium nitrate is not typically regarded as particularly dangerous or volatile, but under certain conditions it can be deadly.

It is highly explosive once in contact with fire, and can release toxic gases such as nitrogen oxides and ammonia gas.

As a result, there are strict regulations outlining how the chemical ought to be stored, to ensure it is kept safely.

Requirements typically include a thoroughly fire-proofed storage site without drains, pipes or other channels in which ammonium nitrate could build up, creating an additional explosion hazard.

What happened in Beirut?

Local officials said an investigation was under way to find the exact trigger for Tuesday’s explosion, which ravaged Beirut’s port and many buildings in the surrounding area, with Lebanon’s Supreme Defence Council stating those ultimately found responsible would face the “maximum punishment”.

President Aoun said there some 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate had been unsafely stored in a warehouse at the port where the blast took place. The ammonium nitrate had reportedly been unloaded from a ship impounded at the port in 2013.

President Aoun called for an emergency cabinet meeting on Wednesday and said a two-week state of emergency should be declared.

He also announced that the government would release 100 billion lira (£50.5m; $66m) of emergency funds in the wake of the blast, but the economic impact of the incident is expected to be long-lasting.

Rescue workers have meanwhile continued their search for more than a hundred people who are still missing following the explosion, which came as Lebanon faces an escalating Covid-19 caseload and a major economic crisis.

Hospitals – already stretched from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic – are currently inundated with the wounded.

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