EXETER – A hydrofluoric acid spill early Tuesday morning at the Osram Sylvania manufacturing plant required the plant to be evacuated while hazardous-materials crews worked to decontaminate the area.
No one was injured by the leaking acid, which wafted through the building in a cloud-like formation. The two employees who were working in the area where the leak occurred were sent to Exeter Hospital as a precautionary measure, Exeter Fire Chief Brian Comeau said. They were treated and released almost immediately.
Those two employees were among 15 who were working the Portsmouth Avenue facility when the leak was spotted at 3:40 a.m. They were evacuating themselves when the Exeter Fire Department arrived. The Exeter plant makes quartz tubing that is used in indoor and outdoor lighting.
Susan Huppertz, the plant manager, said the acid is used in a cleaning process during the quartz manufacturing procedure.
“We train for this every year,” Huppertz said. “So we have qualified people to deal with situations like this if they do arise.”
The initial call to the fire department was for a possible gas leak at the facility. When firefighters Don Matheson and Jason Greene entered the building they discovered the leaking acid. The acid was floating in a large vapor cloud and had spread from the room where the leak occurred.
As a result, the Seacoast Technical Assistance Response Team – or hazardous materials team – was activated.
The team consists of firefighters from across the Seacoast who have been specially trained in responding to situations with hazardous materials.
Matheson and Greene’s fire gear was placed in yellow hazardous materials bags after they came in contact with the spill, so that it could be washed.
The hazardous materials team assembled in the parking lot outside the building. In one area, firefighters prepared to suit up in Level A protective suits to go inside the building. Other START team members wore Level B suits in the decontamination area, where they hosed down those who had gone inside the building.
The hazmat team members entered the building two at a time, while another pair stood prepared to relieve them, Comeau explained. The first priority was to secure the leaking pipe and stop the spread of the dangerous acid.
Comeau classified the amount of acid that actually escaped from the pipe as a “minor spill.”
“It’s just the nature of the product that requires this level of protection,” he said of the protective suits and elaborate response.
Matheson, who is a START team leader and hazmat instructor, explained that the solution of hydrofluoric acid used in the plant is 70 percent aqueous. The acid attacks calcium and will eat through a person’s skin to get to the calcium in their bones, he explained.
“It’s fairly nasty,” Matheson said, adding the Osram plant has immediate first aid in place in the building in case the acid comes in contact with anyone.
Lime was used to neutralize acid that had leaked onto the floor. Once the pipe and the acid on the floor was taken care of, the hazmat team had to monitor the amount of acid in the air. They used litmus paper to test the air for traces of acid.
The teams of two rotated out of the building after about 30 minutes, Comeau said. After they were out of their protective suits, they were given a medical evaluation.