There's nothing quite like standing on top of a tank in the hot summer sun, surrounded by other tanks all reflecting the heat back up at you. Except, maybe, if you're wearing a full face gas mask and taking samples of a gas that is just about everything bad you can call a chemical.

Toxic, corrosive, flammable, explosive, carcinogenic… The whole system ran at a slight negative pressure, so that if there were any leaks air would go in instead of toxic gas leaking out, and they monitored it carefully to keep the concentration out of the explosive range.

I was testing the performance of a new scrubber which was taking the gas in question out of the exhaust, so I had to climb up to the top of the tanks then up on a scaffold, carrying a vacuum flask, to stand next to the exhaust stack and suck a sample out of the flow. All around me were explosion hatches; small explosions ("puffs") were undesirable but routine, and there was a well-established procedure for re-starting the system after it shut itself down following a puff.

For all that, it was pretty safe: as safe as it could be, considering the material. One day when I was taking a sample, a puff happened while I was on top, and I barely noticed it. I think I heard a bang as the explosion hatches jumped, but by the time I turned to look they had fallen back into place and re-sealed the tank, exactly as they were designed to do.

The gas mask was uncomfortable, but I was happy to be wearing it. It sealed all around my face, forehead to chin, and the sweat it generated improved the seal. I couldn't wipe the sweat off my face however, and it's no fun to get sweat in your eyes while you're climbing around a scaffolding system.

After a couple of weeks of this (I could only take one in/out sample set per day, and if there was a process upset that day I had to throw my results out) I noticed that my hair smelled … strange. For all it was a treated gas stream, with low levels of the toxic chemical, I had been spending enough time exposed to it that the gas had started doing something to my hair. The smell was that sickly-sweet smell of rotting fruit, and it lingered for a week or so after I finished that particular project. It took a few washes before the smell finally went away.

That smell in my hair was the only effect the gas had on me. Gas masks are wonderful things.

No comments:

Post a Comment