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It's a Gas!

It's a Gas!

6-101st General Support Aviation Battalion,
101st Combat Aviation Brigade
Fort Campbell, Kentucky

While stationed at Camp Humphreys, South Korea, a couple of years ago, it was my turn to pull a 24-hour staff duty (SD) shift. The SD and charge of quarters (CQ) are co-located at the entrance of the battalion’s barracks building, an eight-story structure that can house an entire unit of enlisted Soldiers. The SD NCO’s job was to enforce good order and discipline while simultaneously keeping an eye on the monitors for the building’s 52 security cameras. The CQ’s primary duty was to ensure everyone entering and exiting the building scanned their ID cards, log all visitors into record and walk the barracks floors.

Our duty started at 0900 on a weekday, and it was pretty dull during the first eight hours. With some Soldiers on night shift, the barracks always has a few people walking around during the day, going for a smoke, doing laundry or even using the community kitchen. Most of the time, though, it’s pretty quiet due to it being mid-workday. The real foot traffic starts about 1700-2100, when most Soldiers get off work. As the Soldiers start pouring in, the building becomes alive with activity. I’ve seen everything from a scooter racing down the hallway to out-of-control barracks parties.

Since this was a weekday, I was hoping for an easy shift. Little did I know that wouldn’t be the case. At some point, rumors began circulating that a battalion-level room inspection was scheduled for the next morning. I watched the camera system as a cleaning frenzy ensued and bag after bag of garbage was marched out of the building and into an overflowing dumpster.

About 1730, a Soldier who we’ll call Spc. K stopped by the CQ/SD desk and said he felt nauseated and dizzy after cleaning his bathroom. I advised him to go outside to get some fresh air and check back with us in 10 minutes. Five minutes later, two Soldiers came in to tell us Spc. K was vomiting outside. The CQ NCO and I went to investigate and found Spc. K on his hands and knees, vomiting blood and gasping for air. I instructed the CQ NCO to stay with the Soldier while I ran back inside and called 911. I was directed to emergency services on post and conveyed the situation to the dispatcher, who sent an ambulance. I then called the company commander to apprise him of the situation.

When I made it back outside, Spc. K was sitting on the sidewalk, still gasping for air. A crowd had gathered, which wasn’t helping the situation, so I yelled for them to back off and make way for the inbound ambulance. The CQ NCO and I tried to calm Spc. K to ease his breathing, but nothing worked. Although he couldn’t talk to us, I was able to determine based on his current condition (he smelled like bleach) and earlier comments that Spc. K was exposed to harsh cleaning chemicals. His condition was getting worse by the minute as he’d gone from walking and talking to lying on the ground, barely conscience, in a matter of minutes.

After what seemed like an eternity (but was more likely about 10 minutes), the ambulance arrived. While emergency medical technicians (EMTs) conducted their assessment, they put an oxygen mask on Spc. K to assist with his breathing. He took a few deep breaths and seemed to be improving, but he was still unable to talk. The EMT took my contact info and a short statement and left for the hospital, saying Spc. K would be admitted for evaluation. On the way to the hospital, however, the Soldier took a sudden turn for the worse and began convulsing and vomiting before losing consciousness. Doctors couldn’t determine what was causing his seizures and he was placed in a medically induced coma.

While writing my report and answering questions from the chain of command, we received a call from the emergency room doctor, who asked us to investigate what chemicals Spc. K was using to clean his bathroom. Upon opening the door to his room, I was immediately met with a pungent chemical smell. Searching through Spc. K’s cabinets, we found concentrated bleach and vinegar and determined he’d used the combination to clean the bathroom, inadvertently creating potentially lethal chlorine gas. While scrubbing the shower tiles, the young Soldier inhaled enough of the toxic gas to fill his lungs with poison. I also noted the ventilation fan in the bathroom was broken, creating a gas chamber effect. I relayed the information to the hospital and was instructed to create a timeline, detailing how long Spc. K was exposed to the gas and who else might be affected.

I went back to the barracks camera system, searching frame by frame to track the injured Soldier’s movements. From the time he entered his room to begin cleaning till he came downstairs complaining of not feeling well, 37 minutes passed. During that time, the poisonous gas filled his airways so quickly that he was drowning in the mucus and water building in his lungs. The hospital took the information and created a treatment plan based on his exposure time.

Spc. K spent two weeks in a coma, during which time his lungs were flushed and scraped. Fortunately, he recovered — though he still suffers from shortness of breath due to scarring on his lungs and has a permanent no-run profile. The chain of command commended me for my quick decision to call emergency services. Had we waited just 10 minutes longer, Spc. K may not have survived.

How did this mishap happen?

Bleach and vinegar are common household cleaners used to disinfect surfaces, cut through grime and get rid of stains. Even though many people have both of these cleaners in their homes, mixing them together is potentially dangerous and should be avoided.

Bleach can refer to any chemical that’s used to get rid of stains or disinfect surfaces. The most typical form used as a cleaner is sodium hypochlorite, which is comprised of sodium, oxygen and chlorine atoms. When mixed with the acetic acid in vinegar or other types of acids, it releases chlorine gas, which — as shown in Spc. K’s case — is extremely dangerous to our health. It’s so powerful that Germany used it during World War I as a chemical weapon.

Some people buy into the misguided belief that mixing bleach and vinegar can create a better disinfectant since they’re combining the cleaning benefits of two products. Maybe they think the solution will be more effective at getting that nasty stain out of the carpet or removing the disgusting mold from the shower tile. Others simply don’t realize how hazardous it is to mix vinegar and bleach, or how quickly the two can react to create toxic chlorine gas. Either way, mixing these chemicals is flat-out dangerous.

What can leadership do to make a difference?

Spc. K let his shower go unattended long enough to grow mold. Where were the leaders that were supposed to be checking his room? Had they done their duty, they might have noticed the bathroom fan was broken and advised him not to use bleach in such a small space without personal protective equipment (PPE) and proper ventilation in place. As leaders, it is our responsibility to conduct training on hazardous chemicals in our living and working environments. Hazard communication training will teach Soldiers how to identify hazardous chemicals in the workplace, safely handle them and protect themselves and others from the risks they present. Although chemical hazards can be found anywhere, Soldiers might encounter them more often than others. Leaders and Soldiers alike need to understand Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Globally Harmonized System standards for hazardous communication.

What should you do if exposed to chlorine gas?

There’s no cure for inhaling chlorine gas. The only treatment option is removing the chlorine from your body as quickly as possible and seeking immediate medical attention for your symptoms. The severity of the symptoms you’ll develop after chlorine exposure depends on the amount of gas you inhale. Symptoms usually start fairly quickly. If your exposure to chlorine gas is relatively brief, you may notice irritation in your nose, mouth and throat. Lung irritation may develop if you breathe in the gas deeply. Most people exposed to low amounts of chlorine gas recover without complications. According to the CDC, if you accidentally breathe in chlorine gas, you can experience the following:

  • blurry vision
  • a burning sensation in your nose, throat or eyes
  • trouble breathing
  • wheezing
  • coughing
  • vomiting
  • tightness in your chest
  • watery eyes
  • fluid in your lungs
  • nausea

The severity of symptoms you develop after breathing in chlorine gas depends on how concentrated it is, measured in parts per million (ppm), and how long you inhale it.

  • 0.1 to 0.3 ppm. At this level, humans can smell the pungent odor of chlorine gas in the air.
  • 5 to 15 ppm. A concentration over 5 ppm causes irritation to the mucus membranes in your mouth and nose.
  • Over 30 ppm. At a concentration higher than 30 ppm, chlorine gas can cause chest pain, shortness of breath and coughing.
  • Above 40 ppm. Concentrations higher than 40 ppm can cause potentially dangerous fluid buildup in your lungs.
  • Above 430 ppm. Breathing in more than 440 ppm of chlorine gas can be lethal within 30 minutes.
  • Above 1,000 ppm. Inhaling chlorine gas above this level can be deadly immediately.

Fortunately, incidents like the one detailed above are totally preventable. However, if you suspect you’ve been exposed to chlorine gas, seek medical attention immediately.

Did You Know?

The third week in March is recognized as National Poison Prevention Week. According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, in 2021, Poison Help responded to more than 2 million human exposure cases — on average, receiving an exposure case every 15 seconds. Some of the leading exposure substance categories included cleaning supplies and cosmetic/personal care products, all of which are common household items. Unfortunately, 3,809 poison-related deaths were reported in 2021. This number serves as an important reminder that while poison exposures and accidents do occur, they can also be prevented with education and awareness. The best prevention of a poison emergency is to have Poison Help’s contact information on hand in case of an accidental exposure, which can be found at https://www.poisonhelp.org.

  • 17 March 2024
  • Author: USACRC Editor
  • Number of views: 283
  • Comments: 0