Source: Thadeus Greenson/The Times-Standard, California
A calcium oxide spill at Fortuna Middle School has environmental health officials asking young children and seniors in the area to limit their time outdoors.
A Kernen Construction crew subcontractor was working on a modernization project at the school on Wednesday and was using calcium oxide, commonly known as quick lime, to dry out soil at the construction site when an adverse reaction and high winds kicked up a cloud of the substance. The cloud left a light coating of quick lime on cars, houses and streets within a few blocks of the school, officials said, adding that cleanup efforts began immediately.
Walt Hurst, a project manager with Kernen Construction, said the spill was a kind of “freak accident” that occurred when a large amount of the lime hit a puddle of water, which kicked up a cloud just as the wind began to gust.
Quick lime is a white caustic substance that reacts vigorously with water and consequently can cause irritation when it comes into contact with eyes, damp skin, ears, noses and other parts of the body. Inhalation may cause coughing, sneezing and labored breathing.
The Fortuna Police Department issued a release stating that the material does not constitute a public health hazard but warning that citizens should avoid coming into direct contact with it.
Larry Lancaster, a Hazmat unit supervising environmental health specialist, said his office in the environmental health division of the Department of Health and Human
Services was notified of the problem Wednesday afternoon but initially was led to believe the affected area was smaller than it later discovered.
“Our immediate concern is to human health and the health of the environment,” Lancaster said.
The environmental health specialist said people should limit their exposure to the powder by keeping car windows rolled up when driving through the area and wiping down porch railings, doorknobs and other “contact points.”
”If someone has a history of sensitivity to caustics or has a respiratory problem, they probably shouldn’t be spending extended amounts of time outdoors (in the affected area),” Lancaster said, adding that applies to children under the age of 6 and seniors age 65 and older, as well. “They should probably limit their time outside until we can give the 100 percent all clear.”
Lancaster said sensitive populations or others needing to spend extended amounts of time outdoors in the area should wear a breathing barrier, like a breathing mask or a moistened bandana, over their mouths. Anyone experiencing skin irritation or burning in the eyes should seek medical attention, Lancaster said.
He could not provide a timetable for full cleanup but said his team is “working to our best capacity” to address the situation.
The city sent a street-sweeping vehicle into the area, and it was able to get a lot of the substance out of the roads and out of the paths of storm drains, Lancaster said.
Crews are continuing to work to clean up the quick lime, and employees of Kernen Construction have set up in the middle school parking lot and are wiping down cars that were left coated with the substance after Wednesday’s spill.
The cleanup efforts have been met with varying reviews, Hurst said, noting that some neighbors of the project have been very happy with his crews’ efforts and others have not been satisfied.
Hurst said his crew will not use more lime at the site and will have to shelve the modernization project until the soil dries out naturally or find another manner in which to dry the saturated earth.
”It’s a setback right now,” he said. “We either need to put things on hold or go a different direction.”