Dozens Must Be Decontaminated after Toxic Gas Leaks at Hospital

Times Staff Writers

About 25 people were treated for nausea, stinging eyes and headaches after a toxic gas was detected twice Wednesday--once in the morning and again in the evening--at a Kaiser Permanente hospital in Woodland Hills, authorities said.

Of the 75 people evacuated Wednesday night, 24 complained of ill effects, fire officials said. All were given showers of a water and soap mixture after being evacuated from the basement, emergency room and first floor of the hospital, Los Angeles fire officials said.

Several patients, including at least one bedridden patient and two more in wheelchairs, were among those who underwent decontamination from the effects of the gas, ethylene oxide.

'Major Emergency'

Gary Svider, a Fire Department spokesman, said Wednesday's incidents were classified as a "major emergency" because of the number of people who could have been affected and because they occurred at a hospital.

Earlier in the day, a dozen employees were washed down in inflatable wading pools after an alarm signaling the presence of high levels of ethylene oxide was sounded in the basement of the hospital, Svider said. The pools were used to catch runoff that might be hazardous and to retain samples for testing.

Three paramedics who touched the employees were hosed down and taken to Northridge Hospital Medical Center, where they were examined and released, fire officials said.

One of those affected at that time, a fire paramedic, was still complaining of symptoms hours later and was removed from duty, according to Svider.

Of those evacuated Wednesday night, four were patients in the emergency room and 20 were in the urgent-care area. One employee who was taken to a paramedic ambulance was complaining of facial numbness and tingling skin.

Surgical Sterilizer

Those being decontaminated were taken into the showers fully clothed to be washed with the soap and water mixture. A fire official said the clothing later would be taken from them, cleaned and returned.

The gas is used to sterilize surgical equipment that cannot be sterilized using steam and pressure, hospital officials said. Equipment is placed in a sealed chamber where it is exposed for 12 hours to a mixture of Freon and ethylene oxide.

The day's events began at 9:30 a.m. when an employee had just opened the door of sterilization chamber and an alarm sounded, according to M. Kathy Bogan, a spokesman for the hospital. The employee and others in the area retreated, along with other employees who were in the hall, she said.

At that time, hospital officials theorized that the employee who opened the chamber may have done so before the gas had dissipated.

Returns to Normal

Fire officials who tested the area at 12:30 p.m. said it was free of the gas and the hospital returned to normal routine.

Svider said there was no immediate indication of why the gas later leaked in the same area. He said it was believed to have spread through the ventilation system to other areas of the hospital, which is located at 5601 De Soto Avenue.

Hospital spokeswoman Janice Seib said, "Most of the signs are pointing to malfunction of the equipment." Hazardous materials inspectors detected no signs of the gas about 9 p.m., she said. Hysteria may have caused some of the complaints, she said.

Fifteen fire engine companies responded to the call for assistance. Among those who came to the scene was Los Angeles Fire Chief Donald O. Manning.

Diane Morgan, 51, of Van Nuys, said she was in the basement and about to get an X-ray when she got a headache and her eyes began to sting.

She and her husband "went back up into the emergency room and they were herding everybody out," she said.

Began to Feel Sick

Richard Hamilton, 26, of Sepulveda said he brought a friend to the emergency room and was in the hallway when he began to get sick.

"They told us what it is, but they haven't told us what it does," Hamilton said. "They told us there was a spill this morning. I don't know why the hell they haven't cleared it up."

Emergency calls were diverted to other hospitals nearby until about 10:15 p.m. The areas affected in the Kaiser hospital were expected to be closed for several hours, Svider said.

"Very low levels" of ethylene oxide have been shown to cause cancer in animals, said Jose Ochoa, senior industrial hygienist with the Hazardous Waste Control Program of the Los Angeles County Health Department, which investigated the incidents. Low levels of the gas can cause nausea, headaches and severe irritation of the sinuses, he said.

The legal limit for ethylene oxide in the air was recently lowered from 50 parts per million to 10, Ochoa said. The alarm in the hospital's basement was set to sound if a concentration of 20 parts per million of the gas is detected, he said.

Alarm Detects Leak

Although the alarm was designed to detect a concentration of ethylene oxide that is higher than the allowed level, no regulations were violated, Ochoa said. He said the equipment had not yet been adjusted to the new limitation.

Ethylene oxide also was detected in the hospital's basement June 26, Ochoa said, although no one was exposed.

Philip Kani, an inspector for the Los Angeles County Health Department licensing division, who was at the scene, said several other area hospitals have had problems with release of ethylene oxide, including the Veteran's Adminstration Hospital in Sepulveda, which experienced such an incident several months ago.

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