COMMENTARY: Ammonia is a popular cooling agent in refrigerators, can also lead to fatal leaks

Crime scene tape up outside the Fernie Memorial Arena on Wednesday.
Crime scene tape up outside the Fernie Memorial Arena on Wednesday. . Global News

When you walk into a community hockey rink what are usually your first thoughts? Hoping the skate sharpening guy is there? Hoping the canteen is open because you could really use a coffee at 6 a.m. on a Saturday morning watching your 9-year-old practice?

I’ll certainly bet it’s not hoping that there isn’t an ammonia leak.

Sadly three people in Fernie, B.C. died from ammonia exposure after a leak at their Memorial arena on Tuesday. Crews were apparently working to fix the refrigeration system.

READ MORE: 2 city employees, 1 contractor killed following Fernie ammonia leak at arena

Here’s an interesting statistic. Daniel Giguere, a refrigeration and heat pump expert with the federal Department of Natural Resources, told the Globe and Mail that of Canada’s 2,500 ice rinks, ammonia is used as a cooling agent in over half of them. Tuesday’s horrible accident in Fernie is Canada’s first such fatal leak.

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FATAL leak.

WATCH: The B.C. city of Fernie is still in shock tonight, after an ammonia leak at the local hockey arena killed three people. Ted Chernecki has the latest on the investigation into the tragedy

City of Fernie reels from fatal ammonia leak
City of Fernie reels from fatal ammonia leak

An ammonia leak can be a very dangerous situation. It requires a Hazmat team, and often evacuations for blocks around the source of the leak. Depending on the severity, the evacuation can last anywhere from 24 hours to seven days. As of this writing, houses, apartment buildings and a senior’s home in Fernie are still under quarantine and a state of emergency is still in place.

You may not know this because nobody was hurt or hospitalized but Winnipeg had at least three ammonia leaks last year. My research indicates in May 2016 St. John’s-Ravenscourt school was evacuated because of an ammonia leak emanating from the roof. The news release from the school spokesperson stated:

“All students and staff were safely evacuated from the school buildings this afternoon and once the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service cleared the buildings everyone was able to safely re-enter the school.”

Global Winnipeg reported on two ammonia leaks at the Granite Curling Club last year. One in June, the other in August. Nobody was in the building in either instance but haz-mat teams still had to respond to both to make sure the area was cleaned up and safe. I’m still waiting to hear from the city if there were more leaks. No response just yet but I’ll update this story when I hear from them.

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READ MORE: Ammonia leak forces temporary closure of Granite Curling Club

Getting back to Mr. Giguere from earlier in this article. He says ammonia is something they’ve used since the beginning of refrigeration in ice rinks. He went on to say they use it because it’s reliable.

I’m certain he was referring to keeping those massive units running. It is a reliable coolant.

It can also be a reliable killer as the tragic accident in Fernie just showed us.

So maybe the next time you walk into one of the older community rinks in our city for whatever reason, find the person who runs the thing and ask, “Do you have ammonia detectors?”

You may feel like a little bit of an alarmist doing that but, if the worst happens as it did in Fernie, at least you’ll know you and your friends and family will be able to get out of there before it’s too late.