The suspected ammonia leak that killed three people in Fernie, B.C., has shone a spotlight on the chemical so often used as a cooling agent in Canadian arenas. Accidents involving the chemical are not uncommon, though the incident in Fernie marks what is believe to be the first fatal one. As questions arise about the use of ammonia in Canadian arenas, some experts have stepped up to answer them:
Is ammonia in common use?
Yes. Canada boasts approximately 2,500 arenas coast to coast, and Daniel Giguere, refrigeration and heat pump expert with the federal Ministry of Natural Resources, says ammonia is used in more than half of them. He said the prevalence of the chemical varies by region, but it is most popular in Ontario where it features in roughly 80 per cent of ice rinks in the province.
Is this a new phenomenon?
No. Giguere says ammonia has long been a popular cooling agent, with use in arenas dating back as far as 1915.
Why is it so popular?
Arenas rely on cooling agents to keep ice surfaces uniform and safe for skaters. Although there are many chemicals that could get the job done, Giguere said some of the most common ones have fallen out of favour over time due to their environmental risks. Freon, the trademark name for a type of hydrofluorocarbon, was in regular use up until the 1980s when concerns about its effect on the ozone layer came to the fore, Giguere said. Canada committed to phasing it out, he said, contributing to the rise of other alternatives. But through it all ammonia remained popular. “It’s not the cheapest system you’ll buy,” said Giguere, “but it’s competitive.”
Are accidents common?
Giguere said accidents do take place, though said the ministry did not have hard data on the issue. A report released from watchdog Technical Safety BC found that of the 50 refrigerant incidents documented between 2007 and 2015, 40 involved systems containing ammonia. The report found, however, that only 10 of those incidents resulted in injuries.
Are there alternatives?
Yes. Giguere said arenas can look to carbon dioxide or propane for other naturally occurring cooling agents. Variations on freon are also still in use, he said, adding that experts have raised concerns about the level of greenhouse gases they emit.
John Milton, chief administrative officer with the Ontario Recreation Facilities Association, said the Fernie incident highlights the need for arena operators to be vigilant about safety protocols, particularly in older buildings.
“It will have repercussions for our industry as a reminder that the potential for this kind of incident can happen in any of Canada’s roughly 2,500 arenas that exist,” he said, adding that ammonia can be used safely with proper training and urging workers to remain diligent about safety practices at all times.