Chemical reaction sends three students to hospital

Three students were hospitalized Thursday evening after an unintended chemical reaction took place at the College of Computing at 801 Ferst Drive. The unplanned reaction occurred in the basement of the building near the freshmen Chemistry labs. The graduate students were preparing chemicals for undergraduate experiments when potassium thiocyanate and nitric acid were inadvertently mixed to form nitrogen dioxide—a toxic gas.

The incident was reported at 7:10 p.m. Members of the Atlanta fire department, Georgia Tech Police Department and the Institute Environmental Health and safety units promptly responded to the scene. The Atlanta fire department personnel tested the lab the same evening of the spill. The building reopened at approximately 7 a.m. Friday morning after Tech EHS officers had removed the newly formed nitrogen dioxide.

Nitrogen dioxide is a reddish-brown toxic gas noted for its pungent smell. Some more frequent producers of the noxious gas include internal combustion engines and thermal power stations. It is also responsible for the reddish hue of mushroom clouds produced by atmospheric nuclear tests. When inhaled, it can negatively affect a number of physiological systems in the body, most notably lung tissue.

The students were able to respond quickly and sealed the heavy-gauge plastic container after the chemicals began to react.

“[The nitrogen dioxide] was capped and placed in the lab to contain the reaction. There wasn’t actually a spill,” Demyanek said.

“Fortunately the quantity was limited and the students reacted quickly and properly to the circumstance. With the general ventilation of the lab, [exposure] was kept down,” said Mark Demyanek, assistant vice president of Environmental Health and Safety (EHS).

“The building was evacuated as a precaution. Three students were transported to Grady Hospital for observation,” said Matt Nagel, Tech’s Media Communications specialist. The students showed no signs of lingering effects and were cleared for release that same evening.

“The students are fine… the Georgia Tech response team worked very well together to promptly address the situation. I believe this can be attributed to good training, communication and the Georgia Tech administration’s commitment to environmental health and safety,” Demyanek said.

According to Demyanek, the students and the response team followed appropriate protocols after the incident. Tech’s chemical safety office does offer basic and advanced lab training classes on a regular basis. They provide information on safety training as well as emergency procedures and are open for all undergraduate and graduate students. The next session will be held on Oct. 30.