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In Festus, Missouri, Chlorine Gas Leaking Out of Train

Aired August 14, 2002 - 12:38   ET


CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: We want to update you now on the situation in Festus, Missouri, where chlorine gas is leaking out of a train that was trying to offload about 180,000 pounds of chlorine into a chemical plant. There you see the location there. It's just southwest of St. Louis by about 50 miles, and there is a picture there of the train as it is leaking this cloud. About 200 to 500 people at a local mobile home park have been evacuated. About 50 people are experiencing problems that have been sent to the hospital. The evacuation, though, is still a precaution.
Joining us on the telephone right now is Ed Kemp. He is a Jefferson County commissioner out there.

Mr. Kemp, thanks for joining us.

What is the situation, can you tell us, with the cleanup? I don't see any guys in hazmat suites out there, but I am told by the sheriff's department that there are workers on scene, trying to clean it up, trying to stop that leak.

ED KEMP, JEFFERSON COUNTY COMMISSIONER: Yes, there are workers from the chemical plant itself that are working on it, and our hazmat team is beginning to deploy now to assist them.

LIN: What is involved in this process? What do they have to do?

KEMP: What we are going to have to do first is to figure out exactly where the leak is coming from, making sure that it's contained so that we can contain the chemical itself. The wind will dissipate a large amount of the chlorine gas, but it's a question making sure that whatever is downwind of the particular gas is cleared as far as all human occupation.

LIN: Yes. What is downwind from that chlorine gas?

KEMP: Right now, the blue fountain mobile home park, which is approximately 100 to 150 mobile homes are downwind. And then there is a an additional mobile home park, depending how much further it goes, and the wind travels in that direction. Part of I-55, interstate 55, closed of now, as well as highway 61.

LIN: Do you know if most of the people who have been injured, are they elderly?

KEMP: The people that were injured, the original people that were suffering, were people at the chemical plant itself, which are workers within the plant. The majority of the rest of the people have been emergency personnel or individuals that have been close to the area. I don't believe there's been a disproportionate number of elderly injured.

LIN: Has anyone described to you what the impact of 180,000 pounds of chlorine be on the environment there, or how long it will take for that cloud to dissipate so it is safe to breath?

KEMP: Well, it depends again on the wind and weather. It's going to make a big impact on it itself. As of right now, the entire railroad cars, the best that we can determine, is not unloaded. So we are working with something less than the full amount of railroad car. The idea is to stop it before it gets any worse or we get more leakage from the car itself.

LIN: Looking at the picture, it looks like a lot is still coming out.

KEMP: Yes, certainly is.

LIN: Thank you very much. Ed Kemp, he's a Jefferson County commissioner there.

Lets he go to our very own Sanjay Gupta to talk about what are some the symptoms if you breath in some of this chlorine. It's a very eerie site, Sanjay, to see this gas flowing in the direction of the wind.

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it really is; 180,000 is a large amount as well, Carol.

Chlorine gas can be a real problem. People closest to it and actually breathing it in can have all sorts of signs an symptoms. Luckily some of them will go away. But some of them that wouldn't be unexpected would be problems with the eyes, causing irritation of the eyes, with the nose as well, can actually really burn the nose and the back of the mouth.

Now, as this gas gets into your system, it can cause the swelling of some of the tissues inside the lungs. That can be a problem later on down the road , with breathing. It can also cause just what we call neurological symptoms, nervousness, restlessness, increased salvation, things like that.

I imagine, Carol, listening to you with the county commissioner, that's probably what some people were hospitalized for, at least initially.

Now, the way they look at these things, they actually measure how much chlorine is getting into the air, and it takes quite a bit actually to cause more significant symptoms later on down the road, like actual bleeding from the lungs, or even coma or death. Those are pretty rare symptoms. You need a large, large exposure to that, as it gets dissipated. As the county commissioner said, it's unlikely the concentrations will get that high, especially two miles down the road, where that mobile park is located, I'm told.

LIN: You're talking about the immediate effect of the chlorine gas is like it burns your lungs. That's what it sounds like.

GUPTA: It is a gas, and certainly, like many other gasses that belong to the same family, it can actually burn your lungs. It can burn all the mucosa (ph) around the eyes, the nose, the mouth. All this will literally burn. You will feel it burning almost like a tear gas-type feeling. And then as some of that gas gets into your lungs, it can cause bleeding in the lungs. People have cited somewhat of an increased chance of tuberculosis-type symptoms. But those are some of the major things they are concerned about, at least in the short term.

LIN: Sanjay, they made this evacuation voluntary. I'm not sure why it was voluntarily, given the scenario you are describing. But what should you do if you think you have been exposed.

KEMP: Well, the most important thing -- and I think part of the thing about the voluntary, again, certainly not trying to frighten people. You do need large concentrations of it to actually have those symptoms. So if you're two miles down the road, it's unlikely that the concentrations would still be that high by the time that dust cloud, that scary looking dust cloud, actually gets there. But the things that you should do -- you definitely need to see the doctor. You could probably rinse your eyes, your nose and your mouth with just plain water, try and decrease the amount of the exposure if you do have those sorts of symptoms.

While you -- if you do go to the hospital, the doctors will probably prescribe IV fluids and things like that to try to increase the amount of fluids in your body, so as to decrease the symptoms. But there is really not much more to do beyond that than just observe for any other changes.

LIN: All right. Thank you very much, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, up in New York today. Good to see you.




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