Old mortar round leaks gas at Aberdeen several people are hospitalized World War I shell was labeled 'inert'

October 01, 1992|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Staff Writer

ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND -- A World War I-era mortar round that leaked a small amount of deadly phosgene gas Tuesday, sending seven people to hospitals and clinics for observation, was one of six rounds that may have been wrongly marked "inert," an Army spokesman said yesterday.

Spokesman James M. Allingham, of the proving ground's chemical warfare research unit, said the round that leaked was among about 40 training rounds stored in Building 5137 in the installation's Edgewood area. The building houses the Army's Technical Escort Unit, which disposes of old ordnance andprovides security when munitions are transported.

Following the leak, officials found five other mortar rounds and projectiles in the building's storage locker that were marked "inert" but did not have holes drilled in them, as required by a 1983 Army regulation. The holes serve as visual markers to anyone handling such a round, Mr. Allingham said, and two soldiers had started to drill the required holes when the leak occurred and they and five others were taken for medical observation.

The other five rounds were taken to a secure area and will be examined further to determine if they, too, are filled with chemicals.

Mr. Allingham said the round that leaked and the other rounds still being examined may have been stored in Building 5137 for years.

Phosgene, now used to make plastics, dyes and other commercial chemicals, was used as a military choking agent during World War I. It was packed in mortar rounds as a liquid that would become a gas when exposed to air.

Mr. Allingham said Army inspectors from Indian Head, Md., and Savanna, Ill., were to arrive at the proving ground this week. "The intent of the investigation is to find out what happened, why and what can be done to prevent this from happening again."

said that investigators will try to determine if there were violations involving the storage of the rounds. He said he could not "speculate" on the possibility of disciplinary action.

By yesterday, all seven people who could have had some exposure to phosgene during the leak had been released from hospitals. Mr. Allingham added that there was no indication that any of the seven had been exposed to phosgene.

The two soldiers who had been drilling holes in the 61-pound, 23-inch-long Levins round complained of eye irritation, Mr. Allingham said. Mr. Allingham said the two men were drilling holes in the round outside Building 5137 "to conform to Army regulations."

They, along with a third soldier who was nearby, were taken to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda.

Another soldier who responded to the leak developed heat stress from wearing a rubber protective suit. He was taken to Franklin Square Hospital in Baltimore County. Two other soldiers and one civilian in the area were taken to a proving ground clinic and released within several hours.

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