'It is blinding toxic': Expert sounds alarm on ammonia at public rinks

A former chief inspector with the B.C. government says he's been sounding the alarm about the dangers of ammonia for over 30 years, and can't understand why it's still widely in use at B.C. ice rinks.

A former chief inspector with the government says ammonia ice-making equipment is a serious public danger

A makeshift memorial for the three men killed in an ammonia leak at the Fernie Memorial Arena. (submitted by Chris Inglis)

A former chief inspector with the provincial government says he's been sounding the alarm about the dangers of ammonia for over 30 years, and can't understand why the substance is still widely used at B.C. ice rinks.

"The problem with ammonia is that it's very deadly. It is very toxic. It is blinding toxic," said Lou Roussinos.

On Tuesday, three workers were killed by an ammonia leak at the Fernie Memorial Arena, in Fernie, B.C.

Three workers died from ammonia exposure at the Fernie Memorial Arena Tuesday. (City of Fernie/Fernie.ca)

Speaking from his home in Nanaimo, B.C., Roussinos said there are safer alternatives available in ice-making equipment but ammonia still dominates the marketplace.

"If you consider ammonia versus one of the other gases we use today like [freon], ammonia is about 300,000 times more dangerous," he said.

'Why do we still allow ammonia?'

"If you have a facility where, on a daily basis, you have young people skating from six o'clock in the morning to midnight, why do we still allow...ammonia? It's beyond me."

Ammonia is commonly used in mechanical refrigeration systems, including those found in ice rinks. 

Roussinos, 71, is now semi-retired from a 50-year career as a refrigeration engineer, teacher and chief inspector with the B.C. Safety Engineers Services, now known as Technical Safety B.C.

He has no specific knowledge about the incident in Fernie but says the worst case scenario involving ice-making equipment is when the ammonia escapes in liquid form. 

Dead in 9 seconds

According to Roussinos, liquid ammonia exposure can kill someone in nine seconds.

"If it's a vast amount of liquid it would create a freezing problem all around you. That's what happens to people who are engulfed in a liquid-vapour phase of ammonia, they freeze basically. It absorbs all of their moisture in order to freeze up."

A sign at Hillcrest Arena in Vancouver serves to make patrons aware of ammonia leak dangers and the warning system in place. (Stephanie Mercier/CBC)

Ammonia leaks at ice rinks are surprisingly common but not always fatal. 

One of the most high-profile incidents involved Canadian figure skating legend Karen Magnussen.

In 2011, Magnussen inhaled ammonia gas from a leak at the North Shore Winter Club in North Vancouver where she was coaching. To this day, Magnusson is unable to work and has trouble breathing and talking.

Public safety risk

Roussinos says aging ice-making equipment present a further worry when it comes to ammonia leaks because oversight and maintenance standards have deteriorated over the years, in his opinion..

He also says decision makers need to fully understand the public safety risk ammonia present.

"If ammonia is safe, why don't we use it in a refrigeration system in a hospital? Why don't we use it to cool an apartment? Why don't we use it to air condition our car? Because we know it is dangerous.

"It is time for the owners of arenas and particularly … municipal governments, to think twice and ask, 'why would we have a gas that is dangerous for our children and the people who use our facilities, when we could use something else.'"

Roussinos left the B.C. Safety Engineering Service in 1997, which changed names to the B.C. Safety Authority in 2004. Last month the body underwent another name change and is now called Technical Safety B.C.