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Toxic Gas Leak at UCSD Medical School

Times Staff Writer

An unknown amount of toxic and carcinogenic gas escaped from a cylinder at UC San Diego School of Medicine last week after an accident involving a piece of equipment that had been the subject of complaints to the state worker-safety agency.

One employee was hospitalized briefly and the facility was closed for the weekend after ethylene oxide used for sterilizing surgical instruments squirted out of the cylinder in a laboratory in Clinical Teaching Facility B near UC San Diego Medical Center.

The employee, Jim Moore, said Monday that he was placed under observation in the emergency room of the hospital and believed he had suffered no ill effects. He said the third-floor laboratory off Dickinson Street, used primarily by technicians, was reopened Monday.

Ethylene oxide is a fumigant used for sterilizing surgical equipment. It is a colorless, flammable, toxic compound. Moore, who is manager of facilities for the medical school, said it is also a known carcinogen.

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Subject of Complaints

The sterilizing equipment had been the subject of complaints filed with Cal-OSHA, the now-defunct state worker-safety agency, by Daryl Lirman, a former manager of the regional tissue bank at UCSD who is suing the university alleging wrongful termination.

Lirman, who has said in court documents that the tissue bank also uses the ethylene oxide sterilizer for cleaning bone for transplantation, complained repeatedly to Cal-OSHA that the equipment was operated without proper guidelines or training for those who used it.

Moore said Monday that the university was in the process of “bringing the equipment to Cal-OSHA standards” when the accident occurred Friday afternoon. He said the university is installing a venting system to carry residual gas through a hose to an exhaust system.

Moore said he was replacing two empty tanks with two full tanks when the incident occurred. When he turned the gas back on, one of the cylinders was not connected and spurted gas in a foam against the wall.

Leaked for 2 Minutes

Moore said the gas leaked for about two minutes before he could shut off the tank. He said he had no way of measuring the amount of gas that escaped. However, he noted that the four-foot-high cylinder was not empty by the time he stopped the leak.

“It was a real unusual incident which has never happened before and will never happen again, I assure you,” Moore said.

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Moore said his heart, breathing and lungs were checked during a half-hour visit to the emergency room. Officials said both the San Diego Fire Department’s and the San Diego County Department of Health Services’ hazardous materials teams responded to the scene.

Moore said that, as a result of the intervention by Cal-OSHA last spring, he had trained the technicians and others who use the ethylene oxide sterilizer.


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