SOUTH CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Nine workers at the IHOP restaurant in the Shops at Trace Fork along Corridor G were taken to the hospital Friday morning after a worker mixed chemicals and released a cloud of hazardous material into the air.
About 50 people were inside the restaurant at about 9:15 a.m. when an employee added the wrong chemical to a dishwasher used to clean restaurant hardware.
South Charleston Fire Department Capt. Virgil White said the two chemicals -- a degreaser and a chlorine-based cleaner -- are used in routine cleaning at the restaurant and were mixed together in a way that created "hazardous air quality."
Although the employees are familiar with the cleaning products used, White said, the employee "may have grabbed the wrong bottle to do his mixture with and it created this problem."
One IHOP employee, who asked not to be identified, said "there was a big cloud of smoke and it filled up the air. It smelled like straight bleach."
The employee said it was "scary. A few people ingested that smoke."
The cloud was visible in the restaurant and diners immediately knew something was wrong, the employee said.
"People didn't know what to do," the employee said.
After calling 911, restaurant workers evacuated diners and moved everyone outside the building.
Before emergency responders knew exactly what had been released into the air, they set up a staging area in the parking lot at the nearby T.G.I. Friday's, which is "uphill and upwind. Anytime you have a hazardous material that is airborne you want to be uphill and upwind," said Kanawha County Emergency Ambulance Authority spokesman Mike Jarrett.
When emergency crews arrived on the scene, patrons had already left and only workers remained.
Once authorities realized the chemical was emanating from the dishwasher, the chemicals were separated and the area was ventilated.
Kanawha County Emergency Services Director Dale Petry said a worker had mixed chlorine bleach with a product called Delimer.
A safety data sheet for the product, distributed locally by Pierson Technical in St. Albans, states that Delimer contains phosphoric acid. The sheet warns against combining the product with any "chlorinated detergents" and that such combinations produce toxic chlorine gas fumes.
Federal law requires employers to provide workers with safety data sheets for any toxic materials they must use in their jobs, and also mandates workers be trained on the safe handling of those materials.
Petry said the combination of bleach and Delimer appeared to be standard practice at the IHOP where the incident occurred.
Elizabeth Scharman, director of the West Virginia Poison Center, said incidents involving mixing bleach with other cleaning products happen frequently in homes and businesses.
"What people try to do is mix bleach with other chemicals to make it clean better," Scharman said. "This is not an uncommon occurrence."
However, doing so produces chlorine gas, which has a very strong odor and can irritate the eyes and aggravate the respiratory system. In an incident like the one at IHOP, workers involved in cleaning would receive the largest doses and patrons a small exposure as the gas dispersed over a larger area, Scharman said. Because of the strong fumes, people tend to try to get away from chlorine gas, she said, and that helps to reduce impacts.