Chemical dispersed in explosion demands caution, professor says

  • The scene at Arens at 3602 Kennicott Ave in Arlington Heights where an explosion has injured several people.

    The scene at Arens at 3602 Kennicott Ave in Arlington Heights where an explosion has injured several people. George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

Posted5/23/2012 6:45 PM

The chemical that sent a dozen people to the hospital Tuesday following an explosion in an Arlington Heights factory demands caution when working with it, even in laboratory conditions, a chemistry professor said Wednesday.

Kristen Leckrone, an associate professor of chemistry at Roosevelt University, said people expecting to encounter the substance, potassium hydroxide, normally wear gloves, goggles, and sometimes even a respirator if there's a possibility of it being released into the air.


"It can dissolve and damage lung tissue," Leckrone said.

According to its material safety data sheet, potassium hydroxide has a fire hazard of 0 on a 4-point scale, Leckrone said. But it has a reactivity rating of 2 out of 4, and a health risk rating of 3 out of 4.

Though not flammable itself, it can react with metals or other substances to produce potentially explosive hydrogen gas, Leckrone said.

As with a strong acid, a strong base like potassium hydroxide can have a caustic effect on the skin and lungs. But what makes a base different from an acid is that it's more readily absorbed by tissue and thus easier to neutralize than to wash off, Leckrone added.

A dilute solution of weak acids such as vinegar could be used to treat skin burned by potassium hydroxide. But the treatment of potassium hydroxide inhalation or ingestion would be more complicated, she said.

None of the people exposed to the chemical in Tuesday's explosion at Arens Controls were injured seriously enough to require hospitalization after treatment.

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Potassium hydroxide has a wide variety of industrial uses, including the manufacture of soap and batteries. In making soap, it's the chemical's properties as a base that make it useful. But in batteries, it's the fact that it's an electrolyte which can carry a charge, Leckrone said.

Illinois Environmental Protection Agency officials said they don't regularly monitor industrial uses of potassium hydroxide because it's not released into the environment as part of the manufacturing process.

• Daily Herald staff writer Jake Griffin contributed to this report.

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