Man finds explosive substance in old first aid kits

John Harahus picked up the first aid kits from his father, Craig, and called 911 after opening them and finding picric acid inside some of the bandages


By Amanda Christman
Standard-Speaker

WEATHERLY, Pa. — Ever hear of picric acid or its explosiveness?

Neither did one homeowner who had it in two old first aid kits used in the coal mining industry.

Once used in medicine for burn wounds, picric acid drew out a slew of first responders Wednesday to dispose of the volatile substance.

Craig Harahus, a land surveyor, acquired the first aid kits from his friend, a former coal miner, about 20 years ago and being that Craig's son, John Harahus, Danville, is in the medical field, he told John to pick them up at his home and take them.

John said he went to the house at 1659 Spring Mountain Road late Monday morning to pick up the kits while his father was at work. One was in a leather briefcase and the other in a metal tin, but when he opened them up he found himself calling 911.

There were bandages inside that contained picric acid, and some of them appeared to have leaked through their wrappers.

He didn't touch them and he didn't move them but he did walk outside for safety before calling for help.

Two weeks prior was the first time John Harahus heard of the substance. It was during a conversation at a hazardous materials class he attended in New Mexico, sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security. Harahus, who works for Geisinger, was sent to the class by the hospital. The only reason he knew picric acid could be explosive was because of that class. Though he knew it came in liquid form, John Harahus didn't expect to see it on gauze.

"I never knew it was in bandages," John Harahus said.

The Carbon County Emergency Management Agency, the Allentown Fire Department Bomb Squad, Beaver Meadows police and McAdoo Fire Company responded, parking on the rural two-lane road in front of the home for several hours Wednesday.

While the exact age of the kits is unknown, John Harahus estimated they were in his father's home, untouched, for about 20 years and probably date back to the 1920s or 1930s.

First responders were able to salvage the vintage first aid kits but the bandages were intentionally destroyed by them in a field across the road from Harahus's home, causing a loud bang in the area.

EMA Director Mark Nalesnik also was at the residence and remained there until the bomb squad "rendered it safe." Lehigh County first responders arrived around 1 p.m.

 
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The substance didn't result in an immediate evacuation but eventually first responders closed the road between Route 93 and Quakake Road as they needed to handle disposal with care, Nalesnik said. Around 2 p.m. officials were still on scene preparing to render the substance safe, Nalesnik said.

Nalesnik said the incident wasn't suspicious and there was no intent to use the substance in a violent manner.

Picric acid was used as a military explosive and as dye for cloth, but also has antiseptic and astringent purposes. It was incorporated in burn ointments at one point in time but it hasn't been used in the medical field for 30 to 40 years, according to Bill Spear, owner and pharmacist at Hazle Drugs, Wyoming and Broad streets, Hazleton.

"Way back when they thought it would be effective in surgery and for treating burns but as modern times came around they realized it was dangerous," Spear said.

Spear said picric acid should be handled with caution, even if it's a small amount. As some medications age they become less potent but others can become more potent, especially in the case of picric acid crystallizing over time, Spear said.

The substance can be in liquid form or powder, according to officials.

Nalesnik said if anyone encounters picric acid they shouldn't touch it or jostle it and instead immediately call 911, just as was done Wednesday.

Copyright 2018 Standard-Speaker

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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