Beirut explosion

  • IASbaba
  • August 7, 2020
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Beirut explosion

Part of: GS Prelims and Mains III – Science; Disaster and Hazards 

In news: 

  • At least 100 people were killed and nearly 4,000 injured in a massive explosion at Lebanon’s capital Beirut. 
  • The explosion was of over 2700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored for six years in a warehouse in the port. 

Do you know? 

  • Incident comes at one of the worst times for the country. 
  • The Western Asian country in the recent past has been crippled by serious economic crisis. 
  • It had led to large-scale closure of businesses and soaring prices of basic commodities resulting in social unrest. 
  • The country is also grappled by age-old Shia-Sunni rift. 

Ammonium nitrate 

  • In its pure form, ammonium nitrate (NH4NO3) is a white, crystalline chemical which is soluble in water.  
  • It is the main ingredient in the manufacture of commercial explosives used in mining and construction. 


  • In India, The Ammonium Nitrate Rules, 2012, under The Explosives Act, 1884, define ammonium nitrate as the “compound with formula NH4NO3 including any mixture or compound having more than 45 per cent ammonium nitrate by weight including emulsions, suspensions, melts or gels but excluding emulsion or slurry explosives and non explosives emulsion matrix and fertilizers from which the ammonium nitrate cannot be separated”. 
  • Pure ammonium nitrate is not an explosive on its own. It is classified as an oxidiser (Grade 5.1) under the United Nations classification of dangerous goods. If mixed with ingredients like fuel or some other contaminants, or because of some other external factors, it can be very explosive. 

Stored ammonium nitrate is a major fire hazard  

Large quantities of stored ammonium nitrate are regarded as a major fire hazard, with multiple reported cases across the world.  

Big stockpiles of ammonium nitrate can explode in two possible ways.  

  • One is by some type of detonation or initiation because the storage comes in contact with explosive mixture or an outside source of energy.  
  • Second, the blast can result due to a fire which starts into the ammonium nitrate storage because of the heat generated due to the oxidation process at large scale. 

There are several documented examples of deadly ammonium nitrate fire and explosion incidents in the past, some with large numbers of fatalities like in China in 2015 and in Texas in 1947. 

Experts say that the world over, the main obstacles in regulating ammonium nitrate is its widespread use in industry and agriculture.  

While a legislative framework exists, repeated examples of misuse and mishaps show that a lot more needs to be done. 

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