By Peter Chawaga
A rare incident at an Alabama drinking water treatment plant had scary results for workers last week.
The combination of treatment chemicals at the plant led to a dangerous release, sending 50 people to the hospital.
“An accidental mix of sodium hypochlorite (which is essentially bleach) and ferric sulfate caused a chlorine off gas at our Shades Mountain Filter Plant,” the Birmingham Water Works wrote on Twitter, per ABC 7. “We use these components to treat water as our normal practice, however they are not meant to be mixed together.”
Initially, only 14 contractors and one Water Works employee were taken to the hospital, but then 40 more people who had been close to the gas were sent as well.
“Authorities say exposure to the chemicals can cause respiratory problems, nausea and headaches,” according to Insurance Journal. “The water system says none of the injuries [were] believed to be life-threatening.”
While the immediate health concerns revolved around those working in the plant, a gas release like this could have had an impact on the surrounding community as well.
“The chemicals gave off gas as well as a strong odor at the plant,” ABC 7 reported. “Residents were asked to shelter in place for an hour as Highway 280 near the plant was closed.”
However, it appeared that the incident posed no threat to the drinking water supply and, ultimately, consumers were safe.
“The water supply has not been contaminated,” Birmingham Water Works said, per ABC 7. “The chemicals have been contained to the building at the facility where the accident occurred.”
More details about how the treatment chemicals became mixed were gathered by WBRC FOX6 News:
“‘What happened was they were delivered to the wrong site,’ said Rick Jackson, spokesperson for the Birmingham Water Works Board.
“The mix-up led to the combining of two chemicals, which in turn caused a chlorine gas to be released,” the station reported.
Luckily, it appears that despite their exposure, the plant’s workers will be fine and that the local water supply was protected.
To read about preparing for similar incidents at treatment plants, visit Water Online’s Resiliency Solutions Center.