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18 People Hospitalized after Falling Ill at Texas Call Center

EL PASO, Texas -- Eighteen people were taken to two area hospitals and more than 200 were evacuated from a call center in West El Paso after being exposed to a non-toxic chemical Monday morning.

Sixteen patients were transported to Providence Memorial Hospital and two others were taken to Sierra Medical Center, said Dr. Kenneth Berumen, network director for emergency medicine for the Sierra Providence Health Network.

Although hospital officials could not disclose the condition of the patients, treatment consisted of decontamination of the eyes and lungs, Berumen said.

"Most complaints had to deal with the lungs, cough, shortness of breath and tightness in the chest," he said.

Just after 11 a.m., fire and emergency crews responded to reports of a strange odor at Redcats USA, 500 S. Mesa Hills Drive. The company is an online and catalogue retailer of plus-size clothes, home and lifestyle products, sporting goods and outdoor gear, according to its website.

An outside vendor was testing the fire suppression system and accidentally set it off, releasing the chemical potassium salt, a dry non-toxic extinguishing agent, said George De La Torre, a spokesman for El Paso Fire Department.

The chemical spread building wide through the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system, De La Torre said.

Exposure to the chemical caused irritation in the eyes and discomfort in the respiratory systems of the patients, Berumen said.

De La Torre said four Sun Metro buses provided shelter to the employees who were evacuated as fire crews ventilated the building for several hours.

At about 3 p.m., firefighters cleared the scene and employees were allowed to re-enter the building. About 10 units, 30 firefighters and five private transport companies responded to the scene, De La Torre said.

What occurred at Redcats USA on Monday is something that could easily happen at any facility, Berumen said.

People are exposed to many chemicals, some of which are simply irritants, in most workplaces, he said.

"It's essential that every workplace have somebody who knows what the toxic chemicals are in their workplace," he said.

It is recommended that people who are exposed to chemicals stay at the scene until they have been evaluated by paramedics, Berumen said.

"You don't want to get into your car if you have been contaminated; you can contaminate your vehicle, the person who is driving your car and other people along the way," he said. "It's best to stick around, be evaluated by the EMS system, and they will help you get transported to the proper facility."



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