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Hazardous Materials History

Many people assume that hazardous material regulations went into effect after the events of September 11, 2001. The truth is that hazardous cargoes have always been considered a danger because they naturally offer a threat to the environment, property, and people. In the United States, the first effective laws concerning the transportation of dangerous goods date as far back as 1871.

During the industrial revolution transportation by railroad and steamboats increased, as did the transportation of hazardous materials such as nitroglycerin, explosives, flammable products, and compressed gases. As the economy boomed, people traveled on vessels and trains along with hazardous materials - sometimes with disastrous effects.

Here is an example of an explosion that occurred during the mishandling of a cylinder port-side in 1893:

UN1072, Oxygen Cylinder Explosion, class 2.2, Class 5.1, hazardous material, hazmat, dangerous goods, spill, injury, dangerous, shipping, warehouse


1866 - A nitroglycerin explosion in San Francisco which killed 14 people, along with similar incidents of explosions elsewhere, led to the passage of a law that forbade the shipment of explosives on passenger vessels.


1871 - Legislation is passed by Congress to limit the amount of hazardous materials transported on ships.


1903 - On November 3rd, a disastrous freight car explosion in Ohio brought attention to the need for greater regulation of hazardous material shipments.


1909 - Legislation expanded to include ground transportation of hazardous goods.


1917 - The Halifax Explosion, known as the largest man-made accidental explosion in history, occurs when a fully loaded French cargo ship carrying war explosives collides with another vessel in Nova Scotia, Canada. Approximately 2,000 people were killed, with an estimated 9,000 injured.


1958 - Legislation passed to regulate hazardous material shipments via air.


1970 - Congress passes the Hazardous Material Transportation Control Act, which required the Department of Transportation to gather and report information regarding hazardous materials accidents and activities.


1973 - Legislation for the Hazardous Material Transportation Control Act of 1970 revised to require more stringent regulations.


1996 - ValuJet flight 592 crashes, killing all 110 persons on board, due to an undeclared dangerous goods shipment. After this incident, the Federal Aviation Administration greatly increased dangerous goods compliance enforcement.


Every year, hazardous material transportation regulations for all modes of transportation are modified. More often then not, they are made more stringent. In some rare cases regulatory requirements are eased, but in either situation there is cause for change.

Changes in technology and products usher in new dangers. Most recently, the widespread use of lithium batteries has caused an epidemic of hazardous material incidents. See below a picture of a UPS plane that was engulfed in flames due to a lithium battery that had a chemical reaction called “thermal runaway.”

From DGM's own small collection of antique shipping documents and transportation related material:

Bill of lading, hazardous material, shipping, IMDG code, ocean, freight, hazmat, dangerous goods, flammable liquid, class 3

An example of what would now be considered a restricted article, 2000 empty barrels with residual petroleum products
Ship: F. Beck
Year: 1873
Today’s possible classification: Class 3 flammable liquid, residue last contained

Another example of what would now be considered regulated for transportation. Quicksilver, now known as mercury, declared on the same bill of lading with pimentos:

Mercury shipment, ocean freight bill of lading for hazardous material shipped with food.  Dangerous goods shipment IMDG code

Ship: Halcyon
Year: 1818
Today’s possible classification: Class 8 subrisk 6.1, UN2809 Mercury; today, this would not be with food goods such as pimentos.

An example of a bill of lading for 1 barrel of sperm whale oil:

Railroad: Hampshire and Hampden 
Year: 1860
Whale oil was used as a means of lighting and to make soaps and margarine.  

Excepts from a copy of regulations from the Bureau of Explosives (former PHMSA) from the 1930's :

Dangerous goods management DGM New York Edison New Jersey hazmat packaging service header
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