Kenneth H. Brown, Ph.D., Chemical Consultant
Case Synopsis: LF, a spice and seasonings distributor, receives raw materials from CAP in order to custom blend a seasoning mix according to manufacturing directions from CAP. CAP provides the formulation, and the processing directions, as well as has the raw materials shipped directly to LF. A batch of the seasoning mix produced by LF was left in their warehouse overnight and was found to be smoldering in the morning. The pallet of 100-pound poly-boxes of seasoning blend was moved to just outside the building, whereupon it ignited and engulfed in flames the nearby outside stored drums of other food products, ultimately causing the building itself to catch fire. The entire building and its contents burned to the ground, resulting in a loss exceeding $2 million dollars-worth of product and a total loss of the building.
Expert Analysis: Counsel for LF filed a lawsuit against CAP for selling them hazardous and defective products. An expert witness who specialized in chemical products was retained by the attorney to determine the cause of the fire. The expert examined all the raw materials that went into the seasoning blend, as well as the formulation and directions for processing the seasonings. The raw materials that make up the formulation of the seasoning blend are onion powder, garlic powder, black pepper, salt and lime (calcium oxide). The expert found that it is well-known that calcium oxide reacts with water exothermically; that is, the reaction gives off heat. This reaction can produce enough heat to ignite nearby materials. Each of the other raw materials that are in the formulation of the seasoning blend were found to contain between 5%-12% water, as per their Certificate of Analysis.
The process used to produce the seasoning blend involves mixing of the raw materials in a ribbon blender to provide a homogeneous mixture. This mixture is then immediately packaged as 100 pounds in poly-lined boxes. It had been observed by production staff at LF that there was a rise in temperature of the blend upon mixing. And that the packaged materials were often warm when placed on pallets for storage.
The expert determined that upon mixing the garlic powder, onion powder, black pepper, salt, and lime, there was enough water present from each of these ingredients to react with the calcium oxide (lime) For a batch of 2,000 pounds of seasoning mix, there could be as much as 120 pounds of water. These 120 pounds of water were thus available to react with the 400 pounds of lime to create a large amount of heat from the exothermic reaction of water + calcium oxide.
The expert was able to issue a report stating that the cause of the smoldering found on the pallet of packaged seasoning mix was due to the reaction of the water in the four raw material ingredients when mixed with the calcium oxide (lime). The amount of heat produced can be expected to be substantial, and enough to ignite materials in the seasoning mixture of the packaging materials. The material that was smoldering in the center of the pallet was due to the heat not being able to be dissipated. When the pallet of smoldering materials was taken outside of the warehouse, and in the presence of fresh air and wind, the materials ignited from the fresh source of oxygen fuel.
Result: The report of the chemical expert witness was presented to CAP during the discovery phase of the lawsuit. They realized that they had not provided information about the fire hazard that could result from the formulation that they provided, along with the processing directions for LF to follow. A favorable settlement to cover the cost of the lost seasoning blends as well as the lost building was provided to LF.
Kenneth H. Brown, Ph.D., Chemical Consultant with DJS Associates, Inc., can be reached via email at experts@forensicDJS.com or via phone at 215-659-2010.