UPDATE - Toxic release at Port of Catoosa sends 130 to hospitals

Thursday, July 12th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TULSA, Okla. (AP) _ Dozens of people who feared they were exposed to a potentially lethal gas left area hospitals Thursday showing no ill effects.

At least 42 of the 138 people treated after Wednesday afternoon's release of arsine gas had gone home or were being released from hospitals Thursday morning. The others were listed in good condition and were expected to be released later Thursday.

Arsine is the most toxic form of arsenic, and breathing even small quantities can be harmful.

Five people who remained hospitalized at Hillcrest and Tulsa Regional medical centers complained of headaches and mild respiratory symptoms, said Sally Huggins, a spokeswoman for the two hospitals.

``No one had a serious injury as a result of the arsenic exposure, but they were symptomatic,'' she said.

The release took place around 1:30 p.m. Wednesday when a tank of arsine gas blew a valve at on the loading dock of Solkatronic Chemical at the river Port of Catoosa. Company officials believe a small amount of gas escaped from the 50-pound tank but didn't have specifics.

``We've got a team of experts that are going to evaluate exactly what happened,'' said Beth Mentesana, spokeswoman for Solkatronic's parent company, Allentown, Pa.-based Air Products and Chemicals.

Environmental Protection Agency investigators were taking air samples at the scene Thursday morning to determine if there was any residual contamination, EPA spokesman David Bary said. The agency also would be meeting with company officials to determine what caused the leak.

Several employees of Solkatronic and nearby Air-X-Changers reported hearing a loud ``pop'' just before people started running from the Solkatronic building. Both businesses were evacuated.

``I looked around the corner and saw a white cloudy gas spewing out,'' Air-X-Changers employee Doug Cammllarie told the Tulsa World. ``There was a lady right in it, flailing her arms. She ran one way, then another, like she didn't know what was going on. Then she ran out of the smoke. The smoke was just pouring out of there.''

Tulsa Fire Department's hazardous materials unit sealed off the area and assisted company workers who contained the leaking tank.

Solkatronic makes the gas, which is used in the manufacture of semiconductor chips for cell phones, light emitting diodes for signs, vehicle tail and stop lights and in communications lasers and fiber optic cable.

Mentesana said she knows of no other accidental releases at the Port of Catoosa facility.

News of a poison gas leak sent Collette Sumter scurrying to St. Francis Hospital in search of her husband, who works at Air-X-Changers.

Joe Sumter and other workers were rushed to hospitals via ambulance, bus and private cars following the release.

``I could not find out where he had been taken, to which hospital,'' Mrs. Sumter said, showing relief after being told by a nurse in the St. Francis emergency room that her husband was getting breathing treatments.

Arsine destroys red blood cells, which can lead to kidney failure. It has a garlic or fishy smell, but a person can be exposed to a hazardous concentration without smelling it.

``So far we have not had any evidence of people showing evidence of red cell breakdown,'' said Dr. William Banner, medical director of Oklahoma State Poison Control.

Some exposed workers' symptoms initially included vomiting, runny noses and trouble breathing, said Chris Metcalf, a spokesman for Tulsa's ambulance service.

A Tulsa World photographer was among those treated and was listed in good condition Thursday.

Several hospitals planned to keep their patients until Thursday evening for a full 24 hours of observation.

``Reaction to the gas may be delayed and anyone who feels they have been exposed should seek medical attention,'' Banner said.

On the Net:

Centers for Disease Control http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/79142_32.html