When you dilute sulfuric acid with water, you get battery acid.
That’s what Metro Detroit community of New Baltimore nearly created in its water supply accidentally last month, due to a labeling mishap.
New Baltimore Water Plant Superintendent Chris Hiltunen said on Sunday, July 11, an employee was pumping several gallons of what they believed to be fluorosilicic acid, a fluoride product regularly used to treat drinking water, from a barrel into a 70-gallon storage tank that feeds into the water supply serving about 14,000 people.
“There was a chemical reaction there,” Hiltunen said. “It heated up and you could definitely tell it wasn’t what it was supposed to be.”
Luckily, Hiltunen said, the plant was shut down at the time, so the chemical didn’t get added to the water supply. Everything was shut down and the chemical supplier, Detroit-based PVS Chemicals, was notified
“PVS had sent out a driver to pick up samples of the chemical that was delivered and they took them back to their lab and tested them,” Hiltunen said. “They found it to be sulfuric acid.”
Sulfuric acid is a corrosive and toxic chemical commonly found in drain cleaners, fertilizers, antifreeze, batteries and detergents.]
The supposed fluoride shipment to New Baltimore impacted four barrels, each labeled as fluorosilicic acid but found to contain sulfuric acid. Whether mislabeled barrels were shipped to other customers and what led to the mistake is unclear.
“I’m actually still waiting on their final report,” Hiltunen said. “It’s, in my opinion, unacceptable that it’s taken this long.
Hiltunen said he notified the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy’s (EGLE), as soon as he noticed something was wrong. EGLE on Thursday, Aug. 6, issued its first public statement.
“The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) recently learned of an incident where the wrong treatment chemical was delivered to a public water supply and was mislabeled,” the EGLE bulletin said. “The incident posed a serious risk to the safety of the water plant operator, the drinking water quality, and was confirmed to cause equipment damage. Fluorosilicic acid (fluoride product) was ordered by the water supply and the shipping containers at the time of delivery were labeled as such.”
EGLE spokesperson Hugh McDiarmid told MLive via email that the agency immediately notified the Environmental Protection Agency; PVS; MIOSHA and the National Sanitation Foundation International (NSF), a nonprofit that sets safety standards for water treatment.
We “also notified every Michigan water system that used that supplier,” McDiarmid said. “Those other systems reported either they had no product with the same lot number; or that their product was not mislabeled.”
Hiltunen said the New Baltimore Water Department will have to replace a storage tank and pump worth about $10,000. No injuries occurred.
“We were very fortunate that our water treatment plant production was shut down at the time that we transferred the chemicals,” Hiltunen said. “Nothing had the opportunity to get in the drinking water system.
“Because of the chemical reaction, we knew exactly what happened and when it happened. That was my statement to the chemical company: If there hadn’t been a chemical reaction. What then?”
McDiarmid of EGLE said if sulfuric acid were present in the water supply at detectable levels, it would “smell like rotten eggs.”
“EGLE responded immediately to ensure that other water systems who use the same vendor that sent the mislabeled product were aware and checked their inventory,” he said. EGLE “sent the advisory to all water systems as a precaution even those that do not use the supplier that shipped the product.”
Water treatment companies, including chemical providers, are monitored by and required to meet strict safety standards established by NSF, an independent third-party certification nonprofit that monitors municipal water in conjunction with EGLE.
“This is the first time EGLE has heard about an issue of this nature,” McDiarmid said. “This is an exceedingly rare occasion.”
MLive has requested and is awaiting comment or further details from the chemical supplier and NSF.
Hiltunen said the chemical supplier’s findings will be forwarded to EGLE. New Baltimore has purchased water treatment chemicals from PVS for more than 25 years. Based on his preliminary conversations with the supplier, Hiltunen said he was told that fluorosilicic acid is delivered to PVS via tanker. It’s then redistributed by PVS to smaller barrels for distribution. It’s not believed that the tanker mislabeled the contents but that the error occurred while in PVS inventory.
“During the repackaging process, something happened and they paused their processing of the fluoride and started processing sulfuric acid,” he said. “Some time in that time frame” the error occurred.
Concentrated sulfuric acid is “extremely corrosive and can cause serious burns when not handled properly,” according to MSDS Online, a website that specializes in providing hazardous material safety information and handling guidance. “This chemical is unique because it not only causes chemical burns, but also secondary thermal burns as a result of dehydration. This dangerous chemical is capable of corroding skin, paper, metals, and even stone in some cases.”