2015’s Tianjin Chemical Plant Explosions:  An Avoidable Catastrophe

2015’s Tianjin Chemical Plant Explosions: An Avoidable Catastrophe

by Matt Collins

In the early morning of August 12, 2015, a series of massive explosions went off at a chemical plant less than one hundred miles from Central Beijing.

The largest of these explosions was the equivalent of 256 tons of TNT, or a quarter-kiloton by nuclear standards. But there weren’t any bombs or explosives involved. Instead, these massive explosions resulted from poor storage and maintenance of toxic industrial chemicals.

What followed over the next three days became the deadliest industrial accident in recent history. By the time the area was finally contained, and the explosions were quelled, more than 173 people had lost their lives.

The initial Tianjin fireball.

The initial Tianjin fireball. (Image courtesy of NBC )

We’ve seen similarly massive industrial blasts in places like Istanbul—where an unlicensed fireworks factory exploded in 2008, killing twenty-two and injuring over one hundred. Even more recently, in August of 2023, it’s believed that some sixty Russian workers lost their lives in an industrial explosion just northeast of Moscow.

These types of industrial accidents are a regular occurrence in the United States as well. Over the last year alone, we’ve seen everything from significant train derailments to chemical fires and uncontrolled explosions—often within a few miles of major population centers.

Significantly, there are 13,500 different chemical plants spread out all across America. What’s more, there are over 600,000 manufacturing businesses, with smaller chemical plants across all fifty states. 

So, while a major industrial disaster might not be as devastating as a nuclear or chemical warfare attack, it’s even more likely to be happening in your state or city. Just ask the residents of East Palestine, Ohio, who were evacuated from their homes in February after a train carrying industrial chemicals derailed within sight of their homes.

With this in mind, let’s take a deep dive into history’s deadliest industrial accident: the Tianjin explosions. We’re going to look at how the chemical plant explosion occurred, what types of volatile threats were involved, and what you can do to prepare for a similar disaster happening in your own backyard…  

Table of Contents

  • 01

    Anatomy of a Catastrophe: The Tianjin Chemical Plant Explosion of 2015

  • 02

    Tianjin’s Toxic Chemical Cocktail

  • 03

    Mitigating Toxic Exposure

  • 04

    The Impossibility of Preventing Industrial Disaster

  • 05

    Frequently Asked Questions about the 2015 Tianjin Disaster

Anatomy of a Catastrophe: The Tianjin Chemical Plant Explosion of 2015

The first reports of the Tianjin explosions streamed in after 10:50 PM local time.

Because those in the immediate vicinity of the first few blasts died instantly, news on the ground was sporadic at first. It all started with a massive explosion at the Binhai New Area storage facility.

For context, Tianjin is a massive economic hub and one of northern China’s largest ports. The area is home to a number of different industrial zones—including the Binhai New Area. This area housed the Tianjin Dongjiang Port Ruihai International Logistics Company, which stores various hazardous chemicals, ranging from sodium cyanide to ammonium nitrate.

According to local seismology monitoring gear, the first explosion ignited with the force of 3 tons of TNT, registering as a magnitude 2.3 earthquake. As such, the shock waves could be felt from miles away–and even seen from space, as monitored by the Japan Meteorological Agency’s geostationary satellite.

After the initial chemical plant explosion, a much larger blast followed just a few seconds later. Seven more subsequent explosions would follow as fires spread across the facility, melting through containment and igniting the massive chemical plant at large.

Devastatingly, the fires in Tianjin raged on for days before authorities could bring them under control. By August 15, there were an estimated 173 fatalities and nearly 800 injuries, including many who’d been severely burned.

The crater left by Tianjin's massive explosion

The crater left by Tianjin's massive explosion (Image courtesy of New York Times )

The sheer force of the blasts was enough to lay waste to the surrounding area, with many buildings in the immediate vicinity either blown to pieces or severely damaged. For perspective, windows were blown out for nearly a mile.

Following the immediate devastation, there was concern about what may have just been unleashed on the surrounding area. After all, the chemical plant housed a volatile mix of hazardous chemicals, including sodium cyanide and ammonium nitrate. 

Naturally, the release of these substances into the air and water–sodium cyanide in particular–raised immediate concerns about the environmental and health implications for the surrounding areas. As a result, emergency measures were implemented to contain and mitigate the environmental impact of the released chemicals, as authorities grappled with the potential long-term consequences of the contamination.

Due to the magnitude of the disaster, Chinese authorities were quick to respond in the aftermath of the catastrophe–acting swiftly to evacuate local citizens and contain the spread of any toxic chemicals from the disaster site.

China also launched an official investigation into the cause of the explosion. Following an extensive inquiry, it was revealed that flagrant regulatory violations and inadequate safety measures had given rise to the chemical plant explosion, which caused a crisis of confidence and a complete overhaul of industrial safety practices in China.

Consequently, the Chinese government brought legal action against the executives and government officials who shared responsibility for the incident. This was intended to send a clear message about adhering to industrial safety regulations and avoiding another incident like this in the future.

Now, we may never know the exact, immediate cause of the Tianjin explosion. But the simple reality is that all these industrial disasters share one commonality: dangerous negligence.

And when you’re negligent around toxic industrial chemical plants, the results can be truly disastrous… 

Tianjin’s Toxic Chemical Cocktail

We’ve seen numerous disastrous chemical plant explosions, accidents, and fires over the years. 

But the incident at Tianjin is noteworthy because of the sheer size and variety of toxic industrial chemicals involved.

For context, these chemicals are used for everything from processing petroleum to manufacturing children’s toys. But you’ll almost never see them in such high concentrations and high volumes, and in such close proximity to other highly volatile compounds. 

Specifically when it comes to substances like sodium cyanide and ammonium nitrate, you’re storing massive amounts of what are essentially live explosives near civilian populations. With China’s sheer size and rapid pace of industrialization, these kinds of huge facilities have become a necessity. But they’re also a unique kind of threat to anyone nearby.

Sodium cyanide, for example, is essential for the mining industry . It’s also used in insecticides. And significantly, it’s a highly toxic chemical, known for its rapid and severe effects on the human body. 

Once you’re exposed—whether through inhalation, ingestion, or skin contact—the immediate symptoms include dizziness, headache, and nausea. Inhalation can lead to respiratory distress, causing difficulty breathing, chest pain, and, in extreme cases, respiratory failure. Not only is the impact immediate, but it can also result in long-term respiratory complications.

And perhaps the most worrying consequence of exposure is cyanide poisoning, which disrupts the body’s ability to utilize oxygen. This can ultimately lead to cascading consequences, including everything from seizures to cardiac arrest, and it can be fatal if untreated. 

Ammonium nitrate is another extremely dangerous compound that we use as a fertilizer.

Beirut’s massive ammonium nitrate explosion

Beirut’s massive ammonium nitrate explosion (Image courtesy of Newsweek )

Inhaling ammonium nitrate can lead to immediate respiratory irritation, coughing, and shortness of breath. 

If you’re exposed to large amounts of ammonium nitrate over time, you can contract a condition called “methemoglobinemia,” where the oxygen-carrying capacity of your blood is reduced. This can result in fatigue, confusion, and a bluish discoloration in the skin, lips, and nails. 

As ammonium nitrate decomposes, it can also release high concentrations of nitrogen dioxide, which can in turn cause lung inflammation, irritation, and the development of long-term respiratory issues.  

Long-term exposure to these types of compounds has also been linked to an increased risk of various types of cancer (including lung, bladder, and pancreatic). Both sodium cyanide and ammonium nitrate have also been associated with reproductive health issues, including fertility and birth defects.

The more we learn and understand about toxic industrial chemicals and the chemical plants where they’re processed, the more apparent it becomes that they’re a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, these types of compounds are absolutely crucial for a fast-paced and high-functioning global economy, as they’ve enabled rapid innovation and a quality of life unlike anything else in history.

At the same time, it’s crystal clear that awareness, prevention, and rapid response are critical to safely storing and using these powerful chemicals. The health risks, both immediate and insidious, sharpen the necessity for stringent safety measures, technological innovations, and a collective commitment to safeguarding human health in the face of industrial progress.

But there’s always going to be a human factor, which means that there will always be mistakes on the job. So it’s important to take steps on your own and prepare for exposure.

Mitigating Toxic Exposure

If you’re ever knowingly exposed to toxic industrial chemicals, you must take specific actions in the first few minutes after exposure.

The first order of business is to immediately remove yourself from the contaminated area and rinse any affected skin or eyes with an ample amount of water. 

If you’re not in the immediate area of the accident, but you’re still close enough to observe a fireball or smell something funny in the air, then you should immediately don a respirator if you have one. Though seeking fresh air can also be helpful, it’s possible you’ll breathe in large quantities of airborne chemicals before making your way to safety.

To mitigate respiratory exposure to toxic industrial chemical plant disasters, we always recommend a full-face gas mask like the CM-8M.

Full-face gas mask CM-8M

Full-face gas mask CM-8M

The CM-8M combines the best features from MIRA Safety’s most popular masks to give you a cutting-edge respirator that’s ready for just about anything—including an industrial spill or chemical plant explosion. More heavy-duty than the average on-the-job respirator, it provides full-face protection in the event of an emergency.

Note that you must keep your mask on until you’re certain that the air is safe and that you can safely decontaminate. After all, even if you’re in a car or a home, the area can still be contaminated. And since most gas mask filters are engineered to provide twelve hours of protection, you should have plenty of time.

For filters, we strongly recommend something like the VK-530 smoke filter.

VK-530 smoke filter.

VK-530 smoke filter.

The VK-530 is a unique filter, because it doesn’t just work for inhaled chemical threats. It can also protect you from smoke inhalation, in case a chemical plant explosion  turns into a roiling inferno like the one we saw in Tianjin.

It’s also important to have some sort of total-body PPE on hand if possible. But since you can’t carry a HAZ-SUIT everywhere you go, we recommend adding something like the M4 CBRN Poncho to your EDC.

M4 CBRN Poncho

M4 CBRN Poncho

Unlike a full-body suit, the M4 CBRN Poncho can’t provide full-body protection. But it can provide a compact PPE solution that goes just about everywhere you go. Weighing in at just 23 ounces (less than 1.5 pounds), it comes folded in a compact package that can tuck into any backpack pocket.

Granted, the M4 isn’t a perfect solution. (Ideally, you’d want to combine the poncho with a hazmat suit.) But in the event of a disaster, it can still prevent bodily exposure to airborne threats and near-term fallout

As soon as you’re safe, you should contact emergency medical services immediately. In the event of cyanide poisoning, antidotes such as hydroxocobalamin or sodium thiosulfate may be administered under medical supervision.

Cleanup is also best left for the professionals. So if you’re not directly involved, it’s best to get out of the way. That means you should take yourself and your family to a safe location, removed from airborne chemical threats, and wait until it’s safe to return. 

Adhering to stringent safety regulations and guidelines is imperative for industries handling toxic chemicals. That means extensive and recurring employee training, airtight accountability, and frequent audits to make sure safety measures are being implemented.

The Impossibility of Preventing Industrial Disaster

In 1999’s Fight Club, Edward Norton’s character explains some of the morbid math employed by American car companies.

For example, a car might leave the factory with a potentially fatal defect somewhere in its suspension. But if the defect is relatively rare, and the cost of settling out of court with the victim’s family is low enough, then the company won’t issue a recall.

That’s not a dramatization, either, as it’s exactly what happened with the Ford Pinto’s defective gas tank–and a number of other death traps that never saw a manufacturer recall.

And they did it because it was good for business.

Which is why there will always be the risk of an industrial disaster.

It could happen at any time on any day, at one of the over 600,000 industrial facilities most of us drive by every day on our way to work. These types of facilities are everywhere. And even though most are nowhere near the size of the Tianjin facility, they’re just as vulnerable to human error.

What happened at Tianjin sent shockwaves through the global community. It prompted numerous other nations to improve their own industrial safety protocols, making their industrial facilities safer than they’ve ever been before.

But these kinds of disasters are still happening. And they’ll keep happening, too. Because safety regulations are never perfect, and everyone eventually makes a mistake or two on the job. While you can trust emergency services to act swiftly in the event of a chemical plant explosion—they may not come quickly enough.

So it’s crucial to make your own preparations, and be ready to keep your own family safe in the event of another Tianjin disaster… 

Frequently Asked Questions about the 2015 Tianjin Disaster

What is Tianjin famous for?
What caused the Tianjin disaster?
Why do the biggest industrial disasters happen outside of the U.S.?