Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Chemical Incident Misreporting Reporting – 10-18-22

I frequently have problems with reporting about chemical incidents and more than a little of that is my fault expecting various folks in the reporting process to be trained chemists. Looking at news reports, it is frequently difficult to tell if the misunderstanding is due to incorrect terminology being used by first responders or reporters trying to read between the lines, but usually I can figure out what was probably happening. Today, however, I came across a truly bizarre description of a chemical incident that occurred this weekend at a medical lab in Vancouver, WA.

The following description is one-third of an article I found today on Columbian.com:

“After a chlorine gas spill at the company, bleach was used in an attempt to clean up the mess. The chemical reaction between the two led to off-gassing. The building was evacuated, but four employees showed symptoms of exposure, including red eyes.”

First problem, if there had been a chlorine gas spill, there would be no one in the building until someone verified that there were no chlorine gas fumes in the building. So, there would be no chlorine remaining to react with the bleach. Second, since this is a medical lab facility, it would not be unusual for facility cleanup to include the use of bleach, but the personnel would be familiar with the chlorine odor associated with that cleaning technique. Third, if there had been serious outgassing from the use of bleach (and that could occur if the bleach came in contact with any number of chemicals, including many cleaning materials) there would have been much more serious problems than just red eyes. Finally, I am having problems figuring out what a medial testing lab would be doing with chlorine gas cylinders on site.

What I suspect happened was that there was an incident at the lab while cleaning was taking place. Either there was an unexpected reaction between a chlorine bleach cleaner and some other chemical at the lab that outgassed a small amount of chlorine gas, or there was a large amount of bleach spilled (probably the later) which includes some minor chlorine outgassing as a matter of course (bleach slowly decomposes to chlorine gas and water at room temperature). In any case, a bleach incident occurred that was significant enough that the emergency services were involved. The spill was cleaned up, the building aired out, and four people were taken to the hospital for burning in the eyes (a common exposure symptom for very low levels of chlorine gas exposure.

To be fair to the reporter who prepared this article (and all local news reporters covering the police/fire beat) the reporter almost certainly was never given access to the scene and probably never talked to a representative from the facility (facility owners are trained to give prepared statements and not talk to the press). So, the information probably came from the fire person in charge at the scene while incident cleanup was taking place. Bleach (sodium hypochlorite) is commonly referred to as ‘chlorine bleach’ and even ‘chlorine’ and this causes no end of confusion. If we could just get everyone to take a first-year chemistry course….

One final note, if any of the four treated individuals was admitted to the hospital for observation, this would have been a reportable accident under the CSB's Accidental Release Reporting Rule.

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