When vending machines attack
Texas drink dispenser emits WWI-era poison gas
Updated: 6:26 p.m. ET June 24, 2004HOUSTON - An exploding vending machine turned the coolant freon into phosgene, a poisonous gas used as a chemical weapon in World War I, and forced the evacuation of 10 people from a Texas hospital, officials said Thursday.
A food service employee was working on the refrigerated soft drink machine at the Park Place Medical Center in Port Arthur, Texas, when a small explosion and fire occurred inside it Wednesday morning, Port Arthur Fire Marshal Mark Mulliner said.
“When freon gas from the cooling system came into contact with the heat from the fire, it changed composition to a phosgene gas,” Mulliner said.
Phosgene irritates the lungs, eyes, mouth and nose and, in strong enough concentrations, causes fatal amounts of fluid to build up in the lungs.
Ten people on the third floor of the hospital were evacuated for several hours while the area was ventilated, said Heather Ross of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
Two firefighters were kept in the hospital overnight for observation, Ross said.
“We were fortunate one of our officers who was first on the scene had some familiarity with phosgene and quickly evacuated the area,” Mulliner said.
Ross said state Homeland Security officials had to be notified of the incident because of phosgene’s possible use as a chemical weapon.
Mulliner said the incident appeared to be a “freak accident.”
“I’ve been here 27 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said.
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