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Aging acid found in memorabilia could explode if moved

4:27 AM, Jul 1, 2011   |    comments
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Carol and Ernie Altvater of Denver did not expect they would find it in their basement among their Girl Scout memorabilia.

The Altvaters have been collecting the memorabilia for 20 years. They did not know that a piece of their collection could cause an explosion: a first aid kit with gauze pads soaked in picric acid.

"When you hear words like picric acid it's similar to when you hear structure fire or child choking. Your adrenaline goes a little higher," Capt. CJ Haberkorn with the Denver Fire HazMat team said.

Picric acid once was used as an antiseptic and anesthetic. When picric acid ages and crystallizes, it turns into a compound that can explode.

Haberkorn says his HazMat team trains for encounters with it.

"What's the biggest problem with picric acid if it's crystallized?" Haberkorn asked a class of Denver firefighters on Tuesday.

"Explosion," Haberkorn answered, picking up a cup to demonstrate. "Shock sensitive. If this is picric acid and it's crystallized and we go up and grab it we could actually blow it right there."

Denver firefighters see six to 12 picric acid calls a year.

Elisa Phelps, the collections director at History Colorado says during an inventory in May, an employee found an explosive bit of memorabilia: picric acid in an old doctor's bag.

Phelps says museum workers know to be on guard for suspect items and substances, whether in medical or military memorabilia.

"It's something that museums that have history collections have to deal with," Phelps said.

The picric acid was also found in a 1930s era Boy Scout first aid kit at the Pioneer Museum in Colorado Springs during the first week of June. A remote controlled robot was sent into the museum to get the contaminated first aid kit.

Much like its original usage as a burn ointment, when picric acid is safely disposed of by professionals, it can create a sensation of relief.

The Altvaters certainly think so.

"I am so relieved that we found out about it and now it's gone," Carol Alvater said.

HazMat crews worry that many people who don't know what it is will just toss the chemical into the trash. That sudden movement could cause it to go off.

"I would rather take the time for us to dispose of it than have to read about a funeral because someone else was trying to take care of it themselves," Haberkorn said.

Picric acid can be in vials, or in old first aid kits - soaked into gauze or as antiseptic or anesthetic ointments. It could be dangerous if it's begun to form yellow crystals. If you find some, try not to move it, call 911 and let the professionals handle it.

(KUSA-TV © 2011 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)

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