SCORES of teenagers were rushed to hospital during a school excursion to the zoo yesterday after a sudden downpour washed burning chemicals into their eyes.
The 133 Year 9 students from Sydney Technical High School at Bexley, in Sydney’s south, were riding bikes around the Western Plains Zoo at Dubbo when they were caught in a deluge.
The rain caused the chemical fluorine, which had been used to clean the helmets, to stream into their eyes. Victims were ferried to hospital by bus as police raced to the zoo.
The town’s district emergency plan swung into action amid fears of a criminal attack.
Paramedics assessed 30 of the students as “seriously affected” and immediately directed that all of the children, aged between 14 and 16, be taken to hospital to have their eyes flushed out with water for at least 15 minutes.
Doctors at Dubbo Base Hospital cleared 122 students of serious injury but an eye specialist was called in to check the condition of 11 students.
A police spokesman said it was quickly determined there was no criminal cause of the incident.
Premier Nathan Rees and Health Minister John Della Bosca were immediately notified of the emergency by local MP Dawn Fardell.
“The zoo immediately administered first aid when the condition was reported and ambulance services were subsequently called to respond,” Western Plains Zoo said yesterday in a statement.
“Early areas of inquiry centred on a disinfectant that is used on bicycle helmets. The zoo has used the disinfectant on helmets for over four years and today’s adverse reaction is unprecedented.
“Western Plains Zoo staff will continue to work with police and medical authorities until the matter is resolved,” the zoo added.
A NSW Ambulance spokeswoman said the chemical could cause a painful reaction.
“Fluorine can cause burns and it requires lots of flushing (of the eye) for a minimum of 15 to 20 minutes,” she said.
“Paramedics used the buses that had taken the kids and transported them to hospital with the paramedics treating them on the bus.”
A spokeswoman for Dubbo Base Hospital said all of the students had left by 3pm and were cleared of any serious injury.
“There were only 11 that were more affected than the others,” she said. “They were looked at by an eye doctor.”
The students were on an excursion to the zoo and it was unclear last night when they would be returning to Sydney.