A minor chemical spill at the Lafayette Utilities System North Water Plant last week led to an evacuation order, an investigation and 14 people seeking medical treatment, according to multiple reports.
Hydrated lime was released as a cloud or fine dust from the plant, polluting the air in the area and covering surrounding buildings. The spill prompted officials at the plant, Lafayette Fire Department, Lafayette Police Department and Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality to evacuate the surrounding area. The evacuation order was lifted on Feb. 4.
Associate professor of chemistry Eric Taylor, Ph.D., warned of the potential dangers of breathing the substance.
“It’s not what you call a particularly serious dangerous chemical, but it’s not something you’d want to play with either,” Taylor said. “It’s an irritant. It’s a caustic material, so you don’t want to breathe it in or put it on your skin because it would damage your skin and injure you….LUS did get people out of the area rather quickly, which is to their credit. You don’t want them to be there to be injured by it, and you don’t want people in the way while they are trying to clean it up.”
The National Lime Association website describes lime as a term used to refer to “products derived from heating limestone.” Although not hazardous, exposure to hydrated lime can cause a number of complications, including skin rashes and bronchitis.
Taylor went on to describe potential industrial and chemical uses for hydrated lime.
“A lime is a component used in a lot of industrial processes,” Taylor said. “It’s used in making things like concrete, and used in the processing of iron, magnesium and other metals. As I understand it, it was a very fine dust in the air..it would do some potential harm in your respiratory tract.”
Upon return to their homes, evacuees were advised to replace their air conditioning filters. The Lafayette Department confirmed that 14 people sought medical treatment after the spill, according to reports from KLFY.
In addition, interim LUS Director Jeff Stewart addressed the Lafayette City-Parish Council on Tuesday. Stewart said a cap was not sealed properly when the hydrated lime was injected into their water process, causing the lime to be released into the facility and carried into nearby neighborhoods by the wind.
Taylor advised extensive consultation of material safety data sheets that can be found online. He emphasized the importance of chemical safety not just for processing plants, but also for everyday citizens in their homes. The American Lung Association indicates that many household cleaning products contain harmful chemicals, especially when mixed together.
“It’s like anything else with chemicals—even around the house,” Taylor said. “If you’ve never used it before, or you don’t know what you’re really working with, look it up,” Taylor said. “Look up the chemical, and it’ll tell you some of its hazards, whether it’s flammable, poisonous, dangerous to respiratory tract. It also tells you how to deal with a potential accident, and how to clean it up.”