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February 21, 2012

'Toxic cloud' sends 9 to the hospital in W. Va.

Kathryn Gregory
Charleston Gazette

SOUTH CHARLESTON, W. Va. — Nine workers at the IHOP restaurant in the Shops at Trace Fork along Corridor G were taken to the hospital Friday morning after a worker mixed chemicals and released a cloud of hazardous material into the air.

About 50 people were inside the restaurant at about 9:15 a.m. when an employee added the wrong chemical to a dishwasher used to clean restaurant hardware.

South Charleston Fire Department Capt. Virgil White said the two chemicals, a degreaser and a chlorine-based cleaner, are used in routine cleaning at the restaurant and were mixed together in a way that created "hazardous air quality."

Although the employees are familiar with the cleaning products used, White said, the employee "may have grabbed the wrong bottle to do his mixture with and it created this problem."

One IHOP employee, who asked not to be identified, said "there was a big cloud of smoke and it filled up the air. It smelled like straight bleach."

The employee said it was "scary. A few people ingested that smoke."

The cloud was visible in the restaurant and diners immediately knew something was wrong, the employee said.

"People didn't know what to do," the employee said.

After calling 911, restaurant workers evacuated diners and moved everyone outside the building.

Before emergency responders knew exactly what had been released into the air, they set up a staging area in the parking lot at the nearby T.G.I. Friday's, which is "uphill and upwind. Anytime you have a hazardous material that is airborne you want to be uphill and upwind," said Kanawha County Emergency Ambulance Authority spokesman Mike Jarrett.

When emergency crews arrived on the scene, patrons had already left and only workers remained.

Once authorities realized the chemical was emanating from the dishwasher, the chemicals were separated and the area was ventilated.

Kanawha County Emergency Services Director Dale Petry said a worker had mixed chlorine bleach with a product called Delimer.

A safety data sheet for the product, distributed locally by Pierson Technical in St. Albans, states that Delimer contains phosphoric acid. The sheet warns against combining the product with any "chlorinated detergents" and that such combinations produce toxic chlorine gas fumes.

Federal law requires employers to provide workers with safety data sheets for any toxic materials they must use in their jobs, and also mandates workers be trained on the safe handling of those materials.

Petry said the combination of bleach and Delimer appeared to be standard practice at the IHOP where the incident occurred.

Elizabeth Scharman, director of the West Virginia Poison Center, said incidents involving mixing bleach with other cleaning products happen frequently in homes and businesses.

"What people try to do is mix bleach with other chemicals to make it clean better," Scharman said. "This is not an uncommon occurrence."

However, doing so produces chlorine gas, which has a very strong odor and can irritate the eyes and aggravate the respiratory system. In an incident like the one at IHOP, workers involved in cleaning would receive the largest doses and patrons a small exposure as the gas dispersed over a larger area, Scharman said. Because of the strong fumes, people tend to try to get away from chlorine gas, she said, and that helps to reduce impacts.

"It's extremely irritating in the short term," Scharman said, "but all of the symptoms go away pretty quickly."

Chlorine gas exposure can be more troubling for people with asthma or other respiratory conditions and, in much stronger concentrations, it can cause death from asphyxia or pulmonary edema.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration sent an inspector to IHOP to look into the incident, said agency spokeswoman Leni Uddyback-Fortson.

"The physical and health hazards of chemicals employees work with are listed on the [material safety data sheets] for the chemical, and commonly include warnings against mixing with other chemicals," she said. "OSHA would expect that the information in the MSDS would be effectively communicated to all employees with exposure to that chemical, so that they are clearly aware of the hazards."

Jarrett said the problem was contained "quickly and efficiently."

Steve Samples, assistant chief of the South Charleston Fire Department, said there was no hazard to anyone outside the building and the chemical was contained to one area of the restaurant.

Jarrett said the nine people who were taken to area hospitals were being treated for "minor inhalation injuries," but cautioned that, in winter weather, underlying medical conditions - such as asthma - can compound the injuries.

"They are breathing on their own," he said. "We just need to help treat them with some oxygen and way to keep their airways safe and open."

The injuries are not life threatening, Jarrett said, but "one fella is pretty sick, though."

Although the restaurant was deemed safe and air-quality assessments indicated no hazardous chemical level later Friday morning, firefighters were still using masks and breathing equipment inside the restaurant.

"We have a handle on this. It is safe now," Jarrett said. "We are just taking care of patients that were exposed to normal cleaners that were used in the industrial setting."

Employees who had been inside the restaurant but were not exhibiting symptoms at the time of the call were milling around the parking lot Friday morning, some of them covered in blankets. A few, who were being interviewed by emergency authorities, were coughing and spitting.

Jarrett said the concern now is that injury symptoms could manifest later and said anyone who was at the restaurant and feels sick or has shortness of breath should seek medical attention.

The restaurant reopened late Friday afternoon.

White said the department was able to get resources together more quickly Friday morning because of an incident on Jan. 31, when a man died and several others were taken to the hospital for carbon monoxide poisoning at the nearby Holiday Inn Express.

"Every call that we run, we gain experience. So when you get the next call you, you're better prepared," White said. "Anytime you have a mass amount of people gathered in one specific area, something like this can cause a great deal of problems. It does heighten our level of response."

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