Five workers were fatally injured and two others were seriously injured when an explosion occurred in a polyvinyl chloride (PVC) production unit at Formosa Plastics in Illiopolis, Illinois, east of Springfield. Image: U.S. Chemical Safety Board
Beverly Martinez was sitting at her desk in the office of a California scrap metal recycling plant when she felt the blast rattle her window.
One of her co-workers, Leonardo Morales Zavala, rushed through her door, struggling to breathe. “Run!” he yelled. He had just cut into a one-ton tank to recycle it in the yard – a football field away – and out poured a noxious substance. He didn't know what it was.
The workers ran as fast as they could toward the street. But they couldn't escape the giant, greenish-yellow cloud. A couple dozen people – workers and customers – dropped to the ground, gasping for air. Martinez fell, too.
"I couldn't get up. I felt like I was being strangled. I thought, 'I'm going to die. I'll never see my granddaughter grow up,’ ” Martinez said.
As she struggled to reach the building across the street, she heard a voice. "Bev, Bev, help!" It was Ricky Mejia, a 23-year-old inspector, calling to her from the ground.
"Ricky couldn't breathe, he couldn't walk. I'm stocky, and I told him to grab my side. Myrna Navarro was already hanging on my shoulder. She was praying enough for everyone. In my head, I was getting to the Firestone tire warehouse across the street. It seemed like an eternity,” she said.
“Then, I couldn't do it anymore. I said to Ricky, 'Your wife is pregnant. You've got a baby coming. Get up!' " They finally made it to the warehouse, where Mejia collapsed.
More than a year later, the ghost of a chlorine cloud lingers like a vivid nightmare at Tulare Iron and Metal Inc., located in the heart of California’s Central Valley.
On that June afternoon in 2010, 23 people were taken to hospitals and six were kept for treatment, including Mejia, who was hospitalized for 11 days, two of them on life support. Sixteen months later, the workers are still beset with health problems, including lung, stomach and Post Traumatic Stress Disorders.
Over the past 10 years, chlorine has been involved in hundreds of accidents nationwide, injuring thousands of workers and townspeople, and killing some, according to federal databases. It is second only to carbon monoxide when it comes to the percentage of accidents that cause injuries, according to the newest federal data.
Chlorine is one of the most widely used industrial chemicals in the world today, with 13 million tons produced annually in the United States alone.
An element that is abundant in the Earth’s crust and oceans, the powerful, corrosive substance is considered essential to an array of products. It is used in manufacturing plastics, synthesizing other chemicals, purifying water supplies, treating sewage and making refrigerants, varnishes, pesticides, drugs, disinfectants, bleaches and other consumer products.
In recent years, accidents have occurred when chlorine leaked or spilled, pressurized tanks were punctured, train cars derailed or when other chemicals were improperly – and often unknowingly – mixed with it. In some cases, thousands of people have been evacuated after an accident at a factory or during transport of liquefied chlorine. Janitors, housekeepers and others also have been exposed when they mix acidic household chemicals with bleach or swimming pool chemicals.
The worst chlorine gas accident in the country occurred in 2005, when 18 freight train cars derailed and released 120,000 pounds of chlorine gas in the mill town of Graniteville, S.C. Nine people were killed and at least 1,400 people were exposed, resulting in more than 550 people treated at hospitals, including some with serious lung injuries. More than 5,000 people were evacuated from their homes.
Chlorine gas is particularly insidious. Even small exposures can trigger coughing, choking and wheezing, and burn the eyes, skin and throat. Inhaling large amounts constricts the airways by inflaming the lining of the throat and lungs. At the same time, fluid accumulates in the lungs, making it doubly hard to breathe. People can literally drown in their own body fluids. At high exposures, a few deep breaths are lethal.