Rotten office fridge sends 7 to hospital

May 12, 2009 5:22:55 PM PDT
Dozens of workers in a San Jose office building were treated by emergency crews Tuesday after being overcome by a rotten smell. The cause of the emergency is a good reminder that sometimes ordinary things can be dangerous.

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28 AT&T employees in all reportd feeling ill, seven were taken to area hospitals including Kaiser in San Jose. And, it was all because a refrigerator in the office needed a good cleaning. When it got one, the combination of rotting food and cleaning supplies proved to be terribly wrong.

"It was like a brick wall hit you. Stopped you immediately," described AT&T employee Robin Leetieh. "It was like a real pungent smell."

The culprit was the potentially-toxic combination of rotting food and cleaning solutions. The stench was so strong all 325 employees at the AT&T office in downtown San Jose were forced to evacuate around noon Tuesday. Some of the workers were sent to the hospital.

"They had fans, but the smell was to the point... People were getting sick, so they needed to evacuate," recalled Leetieh.

The refrigerator had been turned off for some time and moved into a conference room for cleaning. But, the mix of cleaning supplies and old lunches was made even worse when employees tried to cover up the odor.

"Someone also took some spray and tried to deodorize the air. And, it turned out that was a spot cleaner not a deodorant, so it made people very sick," said Capt. Barry Stallard with the San Jose Fire Department.

People were so sick a triage area was set up in the parking lot. More than one dozen emergency vehicles responded to the scene and some sick workers had to be taken to local hospitals on stretchers.

Stallard said that in all, 28 workers reported feeling ill.

"It caused some to vomit, some to just get nauseous and it, for us, activated a hazardous incident," he said.

It was a HazMat for firefighters and a headache for employees.

"It made you dizzy or something, then sometimes it made you feel like throwing up," said one AT&T employee.

Amazingly enough, one person who did not get sick in all of this was the one woman who volunteered to clean out the refrigerator. Firefighters told ABC 7 that the woman suffers from serious allergies and has had nasal surgery so she did not smell a thing.

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