Several workers injured after chemical spill in lab


A downtown Baltimore pharmaceutical company was evacuated and several employees injured yesterday morning after two chemicals spilled and formed a potentially deadly gas cloud, fire officials said.

The spill on the fourth floor of PharmaKinetics Laboratories Inc. closed the 300 block of W. Fayette St. for three hours and delayed light rail trains for 30 minutes while fire engines blocked the tracks.

Fourteen fire engines and ambulances responded to the office building at 302 W. Fayette St. about 8:30 a.m. Firefighters wearing protective suits spent several hours airing out the building and mopping up the liter of spilled chemicals from a laboratory floor.

By noon, all 45 employees had returned to work. "We're investigating more thoroughly what happened," said V. Brewster Jones, the company president. "Clearly there was some error or inadvertent incident."

PharmaKinetics, which has been in Baltimore for 18 years, conducts clinical testing for drug manufacturers seeking approval for their products from the Federal Drug Administration and runs tests in the laboratory, as well as on human volunteers.

Mr. Jones refused to say how the accident occurred or what chemicals were involved, saying he could not say anything that would identify the company or the product that PharmaKinetics was working with.

"We were testing a drug product for a manufacturing client," he said, adding that the spill was confined to a small area in the main laboratory about the size of a pool table. The injured employees were nearby.

"Accidents happen," he said. "There was considerable more appearance of an incident than there was actual danger."

Baltimore Fire Lt. Thurman Pugh said employees interviewed have given two versions of how the spill occurred. In one version, a chemist dropped two vials, one containing hydrochloric acid and the other acetonitrile. In the other version, the vials tipped over.

He said the chemicals combined to form a noxious cyanide gas cloud. Chemist Anna Ketko was overcome by the fumes, as was maintenance worker Earl David West.

Both were taken by ambulance to the University of Maryland Medical Center, where they were treated for throat irritation and burning eyes, and released. Mr. West also complained of heart problems.

Mr. Jones said that eight other workers complained of minor skin irritation or nausea and were taken to area hospitals. None was admitted.

Hydrochloric acid is a corrosive chemical that can irritate the lungs, cause skin rashes and severe burns. Direct eye contact can cause blindness.

Acetonitrile, a solvent with an ether-like odor, is used in pesticides and pharmaceuticals. It is highly flammable. Exposure can cause fatal cyanide-like poisoning, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Department spokeswoman Jean Grigsby said that combining the two chemicals causes a cyanide gas cloud, which can be deadly.

PharmaKinetics emerged from bankruptcy in 1993, three years after being implicated in a generic-drug-industry scandal and losing nearly half its customers as a result. Its former chief executive officer pleaded guilty to failing to tell the FDA that one large customer had submitted false data for drug tests.

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