September 4, 2008

Toxic Gas Sends 11 to Hospital

Toxic fumes spewed from a Christchurch industrial building yesterday, with 11 people needing hospital treatment and streets being cordoned for several hours.

The cloud of trichloroethyline, a degreasing solvent, was initially so dense that the Shape Technology building in Clarence Street, Addington, could not be seen.

Eleven people - none from the emergency services - were treated for minor respiratory and eye complaints at Christchurch Hospital's emergency department. Some were kept under observation for a few hours but all were later discharged, Canterbury District Health Board spokeswoman Michele Hider said.

Toxicologist professor Ian Shaw, the pro-vice-chancellor at Canterbury University's College of Science, said an acute dose of the gas could depress the central nervous system, causing dizziness and nausea.

"I would be extremely surprised if there were any long- term effects at all," he said.

Depending on the dose, however, there was the chance of reversible liver damage, he said.

Repeated exposure to the solvent is thought to cause cancer.

Workers in adjacent offices and nearby residents were told by emergency services to stay indoors and close windows and doors until the cloud dissipated.

A witness from within the site described the chemical clouds as billowing from the building "like mustard gas". Another warned not to get too close "if you value your health".

Christchurch City Council hazardous substances officer Lyn Osmers said she had never seen or heard of such a reaction involving trichloroethyline.

Samples taken from the area would be examined and would form part of a council-Department of Labour investigation.

Shape Technology general manager Dean Worner said five or six of his 80 staff were around the degreasing tank when it started to billow with smoke and chemical fumes. "They all got out pretty much straight away."

Nine of his staff returned from hospital "with a clean bill of health" yesterday afternoon, he said.


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