UI Doctors Noticing Uptick in Anhydrous Ammonia Injuries

By Forrest Saunders, Reporter

IOWA CITY, Iowa - An extremely dangerous chemical is injuring more people than usual. That's according to the University of Iowa Burn Treatment Center. Officials there report an uptick in the number of patients injured by anhydrous ammonia.

Doctors at the center treated five for anhydrous ammonia injuries in the last two weeks. They were farm or industrial related incidents. Typically, the doctors see only one or two cases a year. They called the increase concerning.

More than 110 million tons of anhydrous ammonia are used around the globe each year. To farmers it's a fertilizer, used on crops to give a nitrogen boost. But it's also extremely hazardous.

"The vapors can cause damage to any kind of mucus membrane. It can cause severe damage to the eyes, the respiratory tract. It can cause burns to the skin," said Dr. Lucy Wibbenmeyer, who works at the center.

Wibbenmeyer said she's unsure why the center is treating more anhydrous ammonia injuries. She said it's hard to pinpoint a reason because exposures happen many different ways.

"There are multiple breaks in the system, from the farmer, to the equipment manufacturer, to the retail distributor. All these incidences involve different problems along the line," said Wibbenmeyer.

Doctors at the center are urging those who use the chemical to make sure they're taking the right precautions. They're asking people to follow directions and wear protective gear like goggles and rubber gloves. Plus, medical staff said to bring along at least five gallons of water to immediately douse any body parts that may become exposed.

"The message I want to get out is definitely to not only use your safety equipment, and use it properly, but to just be aware of the chemical you're working with," said Alison Pauley, the center's nurse manager.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention call anhydrous ammonia a pungent gas with suffocating fumes.

Symptoms of exposure include breathing difficulty; eye irritation, burns or blisters on the skin.

The chemical has been used as a low-cost fertilizer since the 1940's.
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