Shelf collapse prompts hazmat call at Institute for Genomic Biology
UPDATED 7:30 a.m. Tuesday
URBANA -- One person received minor injuries on Monday night after being splashed with chemicals that were sent falling after a shelf collapsed in a third-floor laboratory storage area inside the Institute for Genomic Biology.
That man rinsed off in a safety shower, was checked out in a decontamination area, and refused medical treatment, said UI police Lt. Todd Short. The mixing of chemicals that resulted from the collapse prompted a hazardous-materials warning from the University of Illinois.
The materials release, which happened just before 10 p.m., was confined to the one lab. The Urbana Fire Department was on the scene until about 2:20 a.m. Tuesday working with the UI Division of Research Safety to clean the affected area, Short said.
The building was declared safe enough to open for business Tuesday and a private contractor, hired by the UI, was expected to remove the remains of the cleanup.
Urbana Division Chief Brian Nightlinger said fire officials were quickly able to identify five of the chemicals "but after they broke, we weren't sure of what all they were."
"All were solvent-based," he said, meaning flammable. They were in four-liter bottles in a storage closet. Nightlinger said people working in the lab immediately knew of the spill. He was not certain how many people were in the building but said firefighters sounded alarms in the building twice to make sure everyone was out. There are people working there around the clock, he said.
Given the chemical cocktail the firefighters were facing, Nightlinger said they chose the most cautious response.
"We used the fully encapsulated suits with air. The guys look like they were walking on the moon," he said.
Two suited firefighters go in at a time and work for up to an hour - the amount of oxygen they have - while two suited wait on the outside to relieve them or rescue them if something should go wrong, Nightlinger explained.
Nightlinger said fire officials set up a decontamination area outside the building, standard protocol in a hazardous materials spill. The area's hazardous material decontamination truck, stored at Champaign's Windsor Road fire station, was there as was a hazardous materials trailer.
Firefighters routinely train on campus to handle just the kind of situation they faced Monday night. Nightlinger said lab personnel, the building manager, the department head and the chemical safety people from the UI all huddled with firefighters to decide the best way to handle the situation. UI police cordoned off the area.
According to the institute's website, researchers there study areas including bioenergy, climate change, regenerative medicine, drug development, and understanding cancer at the cellular level.
Officials sent out an Illini-Alert warning people to escape the area of the institute, which is at 1206 W. Gregory Dr. in Urbana. The UI sent an alert at 11:10 p.m. saying that spill had been contained inside the building and the area outside the building was safe. The UI sent another alert at 11:28 p.m. to say the building had been safely evacuated and that firefighters were "mitigating the hazard," emphasizing the area around the building was still safe.
"If we think there's an imminent threat to health, life or safety, we're going to push out an Illini-Alert immediately," Short said.
He said UI police did not know the extent of the chemical release when they first heard of the spill and would rather take the more cautious approach. The first alert urged people to "escape" the area.
"Without knowing the circumference of this hazmat release, we sent the whole kit and caboodle," Short said.
It was the second Illini-Alert officials sent out within 24 hours after a reported shooting prompted an alert early Monday morning. It turned out that the shooter had inflicted a gunshot wound on himself.
"I'm not taking a chance," Short said. "If there's someone who's hit, I'm not taking the chance."