Thursday, September 17, 2015

AlP Rat Poison

Dozens of mysterious sealed silver canisters containing aluminium phosphide have washed up on Australian beaches between 2012 and 2015. The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) suspects all the canisters have come from the same ship which dumped or lost its cargo in the Pacific Ocean. Aluminium phosphide is used as a fumigant to poison rats on ships.

When solid aluminium phosphide, AlP, is exposed to water, it releases highly toxic phosphine gas, PH3, which smells like rotting fish. The chemical reaction can be represented by the balanced chemical equation shown below:
AlP(s) + 3H2O(l) → PH3(g) + Al(OH)3(aq)

This is a proton-transfer reaction in which water is acting as Brønsted-Lowry acid by donating a proton to phosphorus. Phosphorus is therefore acting as a Brønsted-Lowry base by accepting a proton from water. Aluminium phosphide will react with acids according to the following chemical
AlP(s) + 3H+(aq) → PH3(g) + Al3+(aq)

These reactions make aluminium phosphide a good choice for ridding a ship of rats.
Firstly, as a solid, AlP can easily be stored as pellets in air-tight, water-tight, containers until it is ready to be used. When required, the pellets can be scattered in the effected area . In the humid air aboard ship, the AlP will start reacting to produce toxic phosphine gas, that is, the area will be fumigated. But it is also possible to entice rats to eat AlP pellets mixed with food, in which case it will act as pesticide, because on entering the acidic stomach of the rat, it will produce the toxic phosphine.

Aluminium phosphide is  a very effective way to get ride of rats, so much so, that is widely used in agriculture to remove rats from grain silos.

"Toxic canisters washing up on Australian beaches pose serious health risk"

"Controlling rabbits with aluminium phosphide tablets"

"Phosphine fumigation"

Further Reading
Definition of Acids and Bases
Proton-transfer Reactions
Mass-mole Calculations
Molar Volume of Gases

Suggested Study Questions:

  1. The symbols of some elements are listed below. Name each element.
    • Al
    • P
    • H
    • O
    • K
    • He
    • At
  2. Calculate the amount of aluminium phosphide in moles given the masses of AlP given below:
    • 10 g
    • 10 kg
    • 10 mg
    • 10 μg
  3. Calculate the moles of phosphine gas produced when each mass of AlP below reacts with excess water in a ship's hull:
    • 10 g
    • 10 kg
    • 10 mg
    • 10 μg
  4. Based on your answers to question 3 above, calculate the mass of phosphine produced for each mass of AlP used.
  5. Your ship is sailing towards eastern Australia and has just crossed the Tropic of Capricorn. You have been asked to estimate the volume of phosphine gas that will be produced when you release AlP pellets into the ships hold. Which molar gas volume will you use; 22.71 L or 24.79 L ? Explain your answer.
  6. Rats are currently infesting a small part of your ship, about 150 m3. How much solid AlP would be required to fumigate this area, but not leave any AlP residue left over?
  7. The Cook has already tried to fumigate the pantry and is sure there is a silver canister around that still contains some AlP, it could be in the pile of empty canisters, or, it could be in the pile of full canisters. No-one wants to kill themselves by opening the canisters to find out, so can you suggest a method that could be used on board ship to determine how much AlP is present in each canister.
  8. Explain why the reaction between aluminium phosphide and water is described as a proton-transfer reaction and not as a redox reaction.
  9. Explain why, even though aluminium phosphide and phosphine are toxic, it is considered safe to use these to fumigate silos containing grain which will be eaten by humans.
  10. The silver canisters that have washed up on Australian beaches have no labels, presumably these have come off while they were in the ocean. You have been asked to design new labels for the canisters. The labels must include suitable safety and handling information.

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