Thirty-five employees at the General Telephone Co. directory assistance center in Westminster were hospitalized briefly Monday when toxic fumes from chemicals being used to re-roof the building entered the air-conditioning system.
The workers, among them three pregnant women, were taken to seven area hospitals complaining of headaches and nausea after breathing the fumes, and were later released in good condition, a company spokeswoman said.
“It was just an overwhelming smell. It made me feel nauseous and lightheaded,” said Lisa Moreo, a directory assistance operator who said that workers were vomiting and several passed out after inhaling the fumes. “It just hit the whole room,” she said.
All 55 employees at the building, located at 6772 Westminster Blvd.,
were evacuated shortly after 10:30 a.m., Westminster Fire Capt. James Schlager said.
For several hours afterward, callers for information at 411 from the 714, 609 and 805 area codes were told to call back later in the day if their calls were not emergencies. Full service was restored by Monday night.
The chemical m-xylene, which was involved in the incident, is a flammable liquid used as a primer to promote adhesion between old and new roof coatings. The chemical’s fumes can cause difficulty breathing, headaches, nausea and loss of consciousness, fire officials said.
Dr. Richard Thomas, director of UCI Medical Center’s Regional Poison Center, said the effects of inhaling m-xylene are short term.
“It really should be of no risk to anyone who is pregnant,” Thomas said.
GTE officials blamed the incident on a mix-up between themselves and McConnell Roofing Inc., which is based in Palmdale.
GTE had contracted with the company to do the repairs but they had not agreed on a starting date, said Stephanie Bradfield, a spokeswoman at General Telephone Co.'s headquarters in Thousand Oaks.
“We didn’t know that the roofing company was going to show up today,” Bradfield said. The workers “had some slack in their work and they went out to start.”
“The ventilation system was not shut off properly,” she said.
Gene McConnell, one of the roofing company’s owners, said that “there was just a mix-up. We thought we had communicated the right start date.”
Schlager said m-xylene fumes were sucked into the building’s ventilation system from an open 5-gallon drum.
Workers waited in the parking lot adjoining the facility for more than 5 hours while officials ventilated the building and changed the filters on the air-conditioning unit.
During the evacuation, directory assistance calls were diverted to GTE’s two other Southern California centers in Goleta and Covina, Bradfield said.
“It slowed down our directory assistance,” she said. “For a while, callers were asked whether or not it was an emergency,” she said.
Operators at the Westminster facility handle 80,000 calls on a typical Monday, she said.
Bradfield said that the company brought additional workers in to staff the other centers.
Emergency 911 assistance was unaffected by the evacuation, Bradfield said, and directory assistance service was expected to return to normal by Monday evening.
Two hazardous materials teams and officials from the Orange County Health Department and Westminster Fire Department and were sent to the GTE building to assist in the evacuation and cleanup.