An increase in illegal methamphetamine use in Indiana has posed a serious risk to farmers who use anhydrous ammonia, but a Purdue University expert says security practices can lower the risk.

Anhydrous ammonia is used widely as a nitrogen (N) fertilizer and it is an economical way to put N into the ground. But, over the last few years there has been growing concern over the handling of anhydrous ammonia – largely because of misuse as a catalyst to make meth, says Bill Field, Purdue farm safety specialist.

Stealing anhydrous ammonia cannot only cause bodily harm and spills, but it also poses serious risk for farmers who use tanks that have been tampered with. One way farmers can deter thieves is by securing all tanks whether they are full or empty.

"Farmers need to ensure that the ammonia they have on their property is secured, is parked in an area that can be kept under observation and that empty tanks are not left in isolated areas," Field says. "There is really no such thing as an empty anhydrous tank. There is always some residual present, and sometimes that's all they're (thieves) looking for."

Sometimes there is tampering with anhydrous ammonia tanks despite preventive measures. When the chemical is stolen, tank valves can be damaged, which can cause anhydrous ammonia to spray from tanks onto unsuspecting farmers. Anhydrous ammonia causes severe burns and, because it is attracted to water, often results in devastating eye injuries.

For these reasons, tanks are equipped with water for farmers to douse themselves with in case they are sprayed; goggles are provided to prevent eye injuries. For hygiene reasons, however, Field suggests farmers invest in goggles of their own.

Corn producers can stay safe when handling anhydrous ammonia by looking for signs of tampering and, if found, call authorities.

"The things farmers should be on the lookout for are thermoses, jugs, white gas, paint thinners, drug boxes – usually it will just look like a pile of garbage," Field says. "I think the only way we're going to solve this problem is for farmers to report when they find these residuals."