Three Owensboro residents — an adult and two children — were sent to the emergency department at Owensboro Health Regional Hospital after the Owensboro Fire Department responded to a medical call that turned into something even more serious.
Once OFD arrived on scene, they immediately discerned a smell in the home that resembled a mixture of cleaning solutions, which resulted in a minor hazmat incident taking place at the residence.
“There are several different kinds of drain cleaners — one of them has lye in it,” said OFD Fire Chief Steve Mitchell. “The landlord had used it a couple days ago. The occupant had mixed bleach into the same drain. It’s a very pungent odor [when mixed].”
Lye is a metal hydroxide that is often a component of chemical drain cleaners. However, the substance can be harmful to humans and has the potential to cause ulceration of the nasal passages if inhaled, esophageal burns if swallowed and irritation of the skin, eyes, lungs or nasal passages if touched. If a person comes into direct contact with undiluted lye, severe skin burns can occur.
“Anytime you mix bleach into a drain cleaner it creates chlorine gas. The lye was still in the pipe system, and the bleach had mixed with that,” Mitchell said. “They had to take the drain apart and let it ventilate outside. It took them a while.”
Mitchell said the drain will have to be disposed of and the landlord will have to replace it with new plumbing because of the dangerous mix of chemicals that reside in the plumbing.
The home where the incident occurred also had to be ventilated to prevent further complications with the residents who reside there.
After interviewing the occupants and determining what had been mixed, the crew of 10 OFD firefighters then dressed in hazmat suits as a precaution against being exposed to the chemicals. The three occupants who’d been exposed were taken to the hospital, but Mitchell said they weren’t showing physical signs of exposure, so he believes they will be OK.
However, the incident does call for a follow-up on the safety procedures that should be implemented when dealing with various cleaning solutions.
“[Chlorine gas incidents] don’t happen that often, but there are mistakes that are made with household chemicals,” Mitchell said. “Safety info is there on the bottles, and it’s on the internet. Anyone using household chemicals should read the labels. Any type of drain cleaners containing lye, even vinegar — anything like that — could create chlorine gas when mixed with bleach.”