A malfunctioning scrubbing system at a South Baltimore chemical plant yesterday released a cloud of hydrochloric acid that was sucked into an office ventilation system, sending seven employees who inhaled the fumes to area hospitals.
No evacuations were ordered outside of the chemical plant, according to city Fire Department officials.
The fumes, which are very irritating to the lungs, escaped about 1 p.m. from the top vent of the 20-foot-tall scrubber inside a smoke stack at the FMC Corp. in the 1700 block of Patapsco Avenue.
The scrubbing system is designed to neutralize the acid by circulating it through a tube 36 inches in diameter with a solution that turns it into harmless salt, explained Eugene O. Reynolds, a senior processing engineer at the chemical company. If it works properly, nothing harmful is released into the atmosphere.
But yesterday, the machine did not completely neutralize the acid. "Anything that doesn't get scrubbed goes out of the vent at the top, and that's what happened," Mr. Reynolds said.
The cause of the malfunction had not been determined.
"The wind drove the vapor cloud that was coming up the vent toward our control lab, where it got drawn into the ventilation vents," Mr. Reynolds said.
"It was drawn into the building, and several on smelling it immediately evacuated," he said.
Seven people went to area hospitals for treatment and observation. Three were taken to the Harbor Hospital Center, where two were treated and released and one was held overnight for observation. Four others were taken to Johns Hopkins Hospital, where they were treated and released.
Although the city Fire Department's hazardous materials squad was dispatched to the site, it stood by for about an hour while the company's own emergency brigade handled the situation, the Fire Department said.
Mr. Reynolds said that to his knowledge this was the first time the company had experienced such a vapor release.
A spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment said the company had not been cited in the past for environmental violations.