Nearly two dozen people were taken to Northeast Georgia Medical Center on Friday morning after they were exposed to a chemical spill at the Kubota Manufacturing of America tractor plant in Gainesville.
Interim Gainesville Fire Chief Jon Canada said the department received a hazardous-materials call at about 7:50 a.m.
Kubota spokesman Phil Sutton said a glass bottle containing less than a liter of a solution containing 3 percent nitric acid and ethyl alcohol dropped from a shelf in the quality control area of Building 2. About 400 workers were evacuated as a result of the spill.
Some workers began complaining of dizziness, headaches and nausea after being evacuated, Sutton said.
Melissa Tymchuk, spokeswoman for Northeast Georgia Medical Center, said 23 Kubota employees were taken to emergency rooms at both the main hospital and the Lanier Park campus. "We got the call around 9:15 a.m.," she said. "Our safety manager, Kevin Matson, set up a command center because of the high number of people we were expecting."
Emergency room physicians stayed in close communication with the Georgia Poison Center, seeking advice on how best to treat the patients. "There is no antidote to these chemicals, so we're just providing supportive care. Fortunately, we don't expect any of these guys to have long-term consequences," Dr. Gaylord Lopez, director of the Poison Center, said Friday morning.
Workers complained of breathing difficulties, headaches, nausea and vomiting. The biggest worry, Lopez said, was that a patient could develop a pneumonia-like condition. By 1:30 p.m., Tymchuk said, six patients had been admitted to the hospital; the others were discharged from the ER. Sutton, the Kubota spokesman, said by 5 p.m., all but four or five of the workers had been released from the hospital.
Dr. John Lewellen, director of emergency medicine at the hospital, said because the workers' exposure was limited, for most of them the nitric acid was "an irritant" rather than a life-threatening poison. "Most were fine once they were removed from the exposure," he said. "No one is critically ill. I anticipate everyone will fully recover."
He said the hospital's two emergency departments did not have any trouble handling the additional influx of patients. "We called a triage code, which brought in some staff from other parts of the hospital," he said.
Canada said not all of the victims were transported by ambulance. "Some with milder symptoms were taken to the hospital by a (Gainesville transit system) Red Rabbit bus, with paramedics on board," he said.
Both the Gainesville and Hall fire departments sent haz-mat teams to the scene, Canada said. "The spill was contained with a sand-type material until Kubota's cleanup crew could arrive," he said. "The building is now safe to use."
Work was back to normal at the factory by Friday afternoon.