Gurney's Inn
August 22, 2007

Toxic Vapor Cloud Evacuates Market

Humidity was high last Thursday morning, heavy clouds hung low, threatening rain in East Hampton Village. In Waldbaum's on Newtown Lane, emergency personnel were confronted with an entirely different type of cloud – one comprised of toxic vapors.

"When I walked in, I saw nothing but a big white vapor cloud in the entire store," East Hampton Fire Chief Tom Bock said. East Hampton Village Lieutenant Anthony Long described the eerie fog as similar to what rises from a chunk of dry ice. "It's real humid in there," he said Thursday morning. Officials quickly surmised the refrigerant Freon had leaked toxic gas through the store.

Village dispatch was alerted to the contamination at around 10:30. Police cordoned off the area as East Hampton Ambulance volunteers set up a triage in Herrick Park next door. Dozens of employees and customers were checked for symptoms related to the potentially poisonous effects of Freon. A half-dozen patients were transported to Southampton Hospital with complaints of respiratory distress.

According to Dr. Steve Graham of the Suffolk County Health Department, the vapor was most dangerous to patients who already suffered pre-existing conditions. One of the cloud's victims suffered exacerbation of asthma.

Once the evacuation was complete emergency responders, including the Haz-Mat team from Springs, entered the edifice with an eye towards finding the source of the poisonous gas. Village Building Inspector Tom Lawrence arrived on the scene, plans for the store in hand. A series of subterranean pits under the store comprise the heating and air conditioning system.

A preliminary investigation revealed a three–eighth-inch line, below the rear section of the store, near the meat prep room and produce cooler, broke off, releasing Freon. The air conditioning system then pushed the toxic vapor through the entire store. According to Chief Bock, Freon "removes the oxygen from the air." Volunteers set up fans at the front and rear of the store to dispel the cloud.

From there, the next aspect of the investigation was turned over to the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, which holds jurisdiction over grocery stores. Chief Mott and a contingent of volunteers waited for a representative who was deployed from Selden.

Last Friday, the chief reported that state officials directed store staff to throw out all unwrapped meats and "everything in the bakery." Although the store's produce department includes many unwrapped items, the chief said "all they had to do was wash the fruit."

Freon is most dangerous right after contamination. Health effects include irritation to mouth, lungs, throat and nose, heart palpitations and dizziness following inhalation. Touching liquid Freon can result in freezing of the skin similar to frostbite. But even years of exposure, say, in a home with a leaky line in the freezer, is not likely to increase a person's risk of getting cancer.

While no serious risk to an individual has been determined by scientists, during the 1970s researchers learned Freon was to blame for the destruction of the earth's ozone layer. Loss of the ozone layer allows potentially dangerous levels of ultraviolet light to reach the earth, a significant factor in global warming. Since then, the manufacture and use of Freon has been restricted.

Waldbaum's reopened on Thursday night. In total, emergency responders were at the scene from 10:30 a.m. until around 3 p.m. Chief Mott praised the coordinated efforts of the fire department, rescue services, ambulance and police departments, as well as other districts that provided mutual aid. "Everything went absolutely spectacular," he said. Employees and customers both were "very co-operative," he said.

Co-operative with responders perhaps, but not The Indy. No members of the staff would offer comment. A Mr. Tapp, who ambulance members said was working closest to the leak, wouldn't provide his full name. "I hate newspapers, and especially The Independent," he said. Those pointed out as co-managers of the store also refused to give their names.

Noting the length of time responders spent at the scene, Chief Mott reminded how – aside from police – they are all volunteers. "Four hours is a long time to ask people to leave their jobs. That just shows the kind of town we live in."

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