Nearly 30 workers at an e-cigarette plant in Salem, Massachusetts were hospitalized following a mysterious incident.
Firefighters were first called to the Thermal Circuit plant around 3:30pm Sunday afternoon to investigate a chlorine leak. A hazardous material team then came to the plant and took care of the chlorine issue, acting Salem Fire Chief Gerry Giunta told Gizmodo. The hazmat crew waited until there were no more readings of chlorine in the building and then left at 8:25pm. As result, a building was closed and no injuries were reported at the time, said Giunta.
Then, authorities got another call from the plant at 9:17pm, reporting that several workers had fallen ill and the building was being evacuated.
Salem Deputy Fire Chief Alan Dionne told CBS Boston that “there seemed to be a panic in the building.” Workers fled out of the plant in what Dionne called a “mass hysteria.”
Giunta said that all but one of the workers had been treated and released. One worker had a seizure, but Giunta could not say if that was related to the incident. He said HIPAA laws prevented the doctors from sharing information about the illnesses.
The hazmat team returned after the alarming report of evacuation and illnesses, but found no traces of chlorine.
“It’s not a standard thing by any means.” Giunta told Gizmodo. “I’m kind of bewildered at it because there were zero readings when we left [initially, at 8:25pm]. I’m at a loss to tell you exactly what happened.”
Massachusetts fire services spokesperson Jennifer Mieth told Gizmodo that hazmat teams finally left the plant, for a second time, at 2:30am early Monday morning, after finding no traces of harmful chemicals. “Entry teams covered the entire building with a variety of meters and found no contaminant that would be hazardous,” she said.
Mieth did offer another possibility for why workers might have fallen ill. “New carpeting was being installed in the building that did leave odors but no hazardous or dangerous readings were detected,” Mieth told Gizmodo. “Whether or not that was connected to the symptoms people experienced is unknown.”
Both Mieth and Giunta said Occupational Safety and Health Administration planned on sending an industrial hygienist to the plant today to conduct a through investigation.