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Seven taken to hospital after cleanup goes awry

November 30, 1999|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. ? Seven people were taken to the hospital on Friday after an attempt to clean up an overflow of sewage at the Wal-Mart Supercenter near Charles Town went awry, prompting the store to be evacuated and closed for about two hours, officials said.

Firefighters and EMS personnel responded to the store at 96 Patrick Henry Way at 1:50 p.m. after they received a report of a store employee with respiratory problems, Independent Fire Co. Chief Ed Smith said.

Following protocol, the store was evacuated after emergency officials arrived, Smith said.

Six other people were taken to Jefferson Memorial Hospital in Ranson, W.Va., for similar respiratory complications, which apparently were caused by a sanitizing solution of bleach and chlorine used to clean up the sewage overflow, officials said.

The conditions of the affected individuals were not immediately clear, by Marisa Bluestone, Wal-Mart media relations manager, indicated in a statement that no one was seriously injured.

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"We were alerted to a backup, and closed the store to make repairs," Bluestone said. "We reopened the store once we had the OK from the local officials ... The safety and security of our customers and associates is our top priority."

The sewage overflowed near the store's main entrance from a bathroom and seeped into carpeted areas, including the vision center, officials said.

Smith said the carpeted areas, not the tiled bathroom, appeared to retain the odor of the sanitizing solution, causing the health emergency.

Customers initially were diverted to the grocery entrance of the store and the affected area was blocked off, officials said.

Rosemarie Cannarella, Jefferson County heath officer, confirmed Friday that sanitarians with the Jefferson County Health Department were contacted about the overflow and had advised store officials on how to clean it up.

Cannarella said Judith Rice, the Jefferson County Health Department's sanitarian supervisor, responded to the store about noon, but she was not immediately available to clarify exactly what happened.

The prescribed sanitizing solution of bleach and chlorine, though rather strong or pungent, was needed to address the risk of communicable diseases that come with sewage, Cannarella said.

"There are protocols on how you mix it, how you apply it," Cannarella said.

She later added that standard applications indicate that "if you can't smell the chlorine, then it's not strong enough to kill the pathogens."

Cannarella agreed with Smith's assessment that the attempts to clean the carpet with the solution likely caused the problem. The affected carpet was expected to be removed from the store, which reopened about 4 p.m., Smith said.

Independent Fire Co. personnel based in Ranson were joined at the scene by firefighters from Citizens Fire Co. in Charles Town and Friendship Fire Co. (Bolivar/Harpers Ferry, W.Va.), and EMS personnel from the Shepherdstown (W.Va.) Volunteer Fire Department, Blue Ridge Mountain Volunteer Fire Department, Jefferson County Ambulance Authority, a HAZMAT unit from Berkeley County, the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department and the Office of Emergency Services.

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