A delayed onset of chemical burn symptoms led to a chaotic scene Tuesday, Sept. 26 at the Science East building, where a chemical spill during an organic chemistry lab sent nine students and their professor to the hospital.
According to Bradon Rossie, Kochville Township Fire Department Inspector, the spill took place in SE 239.
Only four of the students exhibited the skin rash that resulted from contact with phenol, also known as carbolic acid, a solid crystalline substance which requires careful handling due to the chemical burns that contact with the substance and the vapors it produces can cause. The other five students and the professor were also rushed to the hospital via emergency vehicle.
SVSU’s official statement reads that the first student to complain of skin irritation on their arms went to the hospital around 1:45 p.m. without a 911 call being placed. Soon after, three more students in the classroom noticed they too had skin irritation. The Kochville Township Fire Department received the emergency call just after 3:00 p.m.
Once it was established that a chemical spill had taken place, University Police responded to the incident by cordoning off the hallway and restricting access to the affected area of Science East. Students were quarantined and treated by medical responders after being moved to an adjacent classroom. They were then decontaminated inside the classroom and taken to the hospital. Medical personnel at the scene stated the patients would likely be split between multiple area hospitals.
Kochville, Zilwaulkee, Thomas and Bridgeport Township Fire Departments responded with multiple fire engines, as did Mobile Medical Response with ambulances. A biohazard response team from Saginaw County Hazardous Materials responded as well.
Decontamination procedures required the affected students and professor to remove their clothes, have their skin cleaned of any phenol residue and to cover themselves in sterile sheets while they were transported to the hospital. All those affected by the chemical spill were able to walk under their own power from the second floor of Science East to the waiting emergency vehicles.
Director of Media and Community Relations J.J. Boehm commented that everyone who was potentially exposed to the chemical was taken to the hospital, whether or not they exhibited chemical burn symptoms, out of an abundance of caution.
At the scene, both Boehm and SVSU President Don Bachand took care to note that the students and professor involved in the incident are experienced in chemistry lab procedure.
“This was an Organic Chemistry 2 class, so these are students who would have had prior chemistry courses and who would have attended prior chemistry labs,” Boehm said. “They were following all of the standard safety precautions, to the best of our understanding.”
While all the students were wearing proper safety goggles and gloves, the day’s high temperatures likely contributed to more students wearing clothes that exposed their arms and legs, leading to the chemical burns.
“We had two senior faculty members in there who have no history of this kind of thing,” Bachand said.
At some point after the spill, Bachand entered the classroom to check on the situation. He was evaluated and released on the scene by emergency medical responders, and suffered no injury or symptoms of phenol exposure.
Bachand noted that while the situation was being treated seriously, the chemistry classroom’s safety systems engaged properly and contained the chemical exposure to the single classroom.
“All the vents and all the (safety) equipment were working,” Bachand said. “That was the first thing we checked, to make sure those vents were working.”
The effective use of the emergency vents meant that while the affected chemistry lab is currently shut down, the rest of the Science East wing remains open. It also likely ensured that everyone in the chemistry lab suffered, at worst, only minor injuries.
“(The spill) was contained to one room,” Rossie said. “The way the room is designed is so when incidents like this happens, it keeps it to one room so that it doesn’t get out anywhere else. The people that were contaminated were moved to an adjacent room that is designed the same way.”
The typical symptoms of exposure to phenol were described by first responders at the scene as being similar to an allergic reaction, though prolonged exposure can lead to third-degree burns and other more serious symptoms.
SE 239 will remain closed while the Kochville Township Fire Department investigates the incident and the room is decontaminated.
The Valley Vanguard will continue to update this story as it develops.