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Fumes sicken students at art gallery

May 28, 2004|by RICHARD BELISLE

waynesboro@herald-mail.com

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Seven Chambersburg Area Senior High School students were among visitors to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., on Thursday who were sickened by fumes inside the building, said Edwin H. Sponseller, superintendent of the Chambersburg Area School District.

Sponseller said none of the students was seriously injured. All were able to contact their parents on cell phones.

Hazardous materials crews evacuated the building. They traced the problem to a polyurethane sealant being used in a refurbishment project.

"What we have here is a mass casualty event," said Alan Etter, spokesman for the District of Columbia Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department.

"Several containers were open at the same time creating a large concentration of these harmful vapors," Etter said. "The stuff is flammable, the stuff is toxic, even in low concentrations."

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One firefighter and three museum security guards were hospitalized with symptoms including nausea and headaches.

A chaperone with the Chambersburg students told D.C. firefighters that some of the students were not feeling well. They were taken to a hospital as a precaution.

Sponseller said two bus loads of foreign language students from Chambersburg were on the trip. He said seven students on one of the buses complained of not feeling well.

Sponseller said police at the scene insisted that the students be checked out at the hospital. That seemed to concern the students more than anything, he said. "Some of them were shook up," he said.

He said one of the buses was on its way back home at around 3:15 p.m.

The gallery was closed the rest of Thursday and was expected to reopen today. Airing out the building proved to be a challenge.

"Normally what we do is open the doors and reverse fans pump fresh air into the building. We can't do that here because many of the pieces of artwork that they have are vulnerable to humidity and they would be destroyed," Etter said.

Instead, the building's ventilation system was being turned up to the highest level to clean the air.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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