Gas leak sends three to hospital

by David Kung | 7/3/96 5:00am

Suited firemen with protective face gear and oxygen tanks strapped on their backs marched into Burke Laboratory late Monday evening to investigate toxic fumes that appeared to be emanating from the building.

These fumes were later identified as coming from a canister of 1,3-Butadiene that was improperly placed on the loading dock of Burke.

At 7 p.m. that evening, Safety and Security received a call from Delta Gamma sorority complaining of a smell permeating the area surrounding the sorority.

The smell in the area was so strong that three sisters at Delta Gamma sorority were sent to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and then released. Christie Jackson '97, was the only sister that had to be treated.

Safety and Security contacted the Hanover fire department, which arrived shortly and deemed the situation hazardous. They authorized the evacuation and closing of all the science buildings and adjacent building and streets.

Burke Laboratory, Steele Chemistry Building, Fairchild Natural Sciences Center, Delta Gamma, Dragon senior society, Wheeler and Richardson halls, and Rollins Chapel were all evacuated, closed and sealed.

Behind the science buildings, the streets were blocked off all the way to Shattuck Observatory. College Street was closed between Rollins Chapel and the Dragon.

"We originally came down here somewhat earlier in the evening for a strange smell originating from [Delta Gamma]," Fire Department Captain Thomas Clark said. "In investigating, we found it was very strong and probably emanating from Burke. We speculated that it was organic material coming from waste."

The first act the fire department did was to empty and ventilate the area, Clark said.

After cleaning Burke of toxic gas and searching for three hours, the firemen, with the assistance of Chemistry Professor John Winn, were able to locate the source of the gas.

"What we found was a small one foot tall metal cylinder of liquefied compressed 1,3-Butadiene," on a loading dock outside Burke said Director of Environmental Health and Safety Michael Blayney.

"It had leaked out," he said. "It is extremely soluble but heavier than air so when it leaked out, it stayed around."

The canister had been mistaken as empty and placed outside to be recollected and shipped back to its manufacturer, Blayney said.

"I guess somebody had taken it outside," he said. "It had been earmarked for disposal. The full details are still being worked out on who it was and Professor Winn is working on that."

Cylinders, such as the one found last night, are reused, Winn said. They are shipped back to the manufacturers. The Department of Transportation sets standards to ensure that such shipment is safe.

The canister was found in an upside down position, which was what was initially thought to be the reason for the leak.

It was more likely that because the cylinder had been assumed to be empty, it had not been sealed completely, Blayney said.

"The conjecture at this point is that the canister was presumed to be empty and the valve may not have been torqued down good and tight," he said. "It was put wherever and dribbled out."

An "incredibly small" amount of the liquid was all that leaked, Blayney said.

"It was half a cup, probably less," he said. "It was probably between four to eight tablespoons. Of course, with something that noxious, it takes only a small amount to get around."

This is a very unusual situation, Blayney said.

"Since I came here this past August, this is the first time in my year here that we have had a hazardous incident like this," he said. "We had the small incidents in labs where somebody drops something and we go in to clean it up," he added.

"It took us a little while, but we found it," he said. "I was very impressed with how well everybody worked together with town officials in this incident."

1,3-Butadiene is also known as Biethylene and Buta-1,3-Diene according to the Material Safety Data Sheets on the substance.

The substance is flammable and toxic, according to material safety data sheets and may cause cancer if overexposure occurs. "We don't want to be alarmist about this," Blayney said. "This is a common intermediary that chemists use a lot."

"The substance is very much like butane gas that comes in any cigarette lighter but it has a much more pungent odor and is more chemically reactive," Winn said.

As a result of the hazardous fumes, fire fighters forced the sisters of Delta Gamma to evacuate immediately, without even shoes, books or other necessities.

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