Fumes that resulted from the accidental spillage of less than an ounce of a chemical used in antimalaria research caused nausea, vomiting, dizziness and headaches this week among dozens of workers at a Bethesda office building rented mostly by the National Institutes of Health.
Apparently no one was hospitalized, but federal and state agencies have begun investigations. Two questions to be studied are what the longrange effects of inhaling the fumes will be and whether proper disposal procedures were followed once the spill was discovered.
The fumes, described as "like nothing you've ever smelled before, like a skunk, like burning rubber, horrible" by one of those who smelled it, was spread through parts of the privately owned building at 7910 Woodmont Ave. through an air conditioning system.
The stench was noticed by workers as much as two blocks away and was still descernible yesterday.
"No one, quite frankly, knows the long-range impact of the accident," said Thomas J. Mason, a leading researcher at the National Cancer Institutes, who could smell the fumes in his 10th floor offices in the building yesterday. "We are very concerned."
The fumes, which caused the week-long evaculation of ground floor offices in the building, were produced by the accidental spillage of the chemical catechylphosphotrichloride.
The chemical, contained in a glass vial stoppered with a cork, was stored in basement offices rented by Herner and Co. in a building next door. The firm stores about 300,000 chemicals and drugs on a $350,000 annual contract from the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, according to an Army spokesman.
Mary Herner, executive vice president of the company, said the accident apparently occurred when an unidentified Herner employee moved the vial from a refrigerator where it was stored. The vial was knocked to the floor and broke as the employee reached for another vial, she said.
According to Mason, who said he toured the Herner and Co. offices, located at 7801 Norfolk St., shortly after the incident Monday, Herner employees opened their windows after the spill to ventilate their offices. When the fumes left the Herner offices they were sucked into an air intake valve of the Cancer Institutes offices and circulated through the air conditioning system of parts of the building, he said.
Additionally, materials used to soak up the spilled chemicals were placed in plastic bags and left in a garbage bin between the two buildings, and fume from the garbage bins were also sucked into the air conditioning unit, he said.
On Wednesday a trash collector used his own cleaning solvent in an attempt to dilute the smell, but only succeeded in intensifying it, according to Frances Abrams, director of the Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection, which has jurisdiction over trash disposal.
Mrs. Herner said yesterday she did not know if the required disposal procedures were followed. Federal procedures for disposal of spilled chemicals normally involve the immediate isolation of the materials, according to persons familiar with the field.
The odor caused 17 workers in the Cancer Institute's computer section to move their offices to other floors. Mary Cusano, a computer specialist, said "the smell" gave me headaches, made me feel dizzy. When I blew my nose I saw flecks of blood," she said.
Mike Stump, a computer systems supervisor, said he took administrative leave Monday afternoon because the smell made him feel ill.
Doris Paige, who works in the mail room next to the computer offices said, "I can still taste it, all the time. In my throat, in my chest. It made me dizzy, made my eyes red and runny." Paige said she was sent to a doctor at the nearby National Institutes of Health campus.
"He said if I have trouble breathing to go to (a hospital) in a hurry. I feel OK now, but I can still taste it. It's bitter," she said.
Carolan Hanson, 18, a secretary at Bogart & Brownell, an insurance firm located around the corner at 4829 Fairmont Ave., said that on Tuesday she had smelled the odor "from up on Wisconsin Avenue," a block and a half away. "It was awful," she said.
Sharon Isard, 24, who works in the same office, said she had had "very painful headaches all week long, and I usually don't get headaches," she said.
Herner and Co. has occupied its offices for more than a dozen years, Mr. Herner said. The computer section of the Cancer Institutes has occupied its offices next door for four years, employees said. Many of the institutes' employees have in the past "made documented and historic complaints of headaches, dizzyness, and odors," according to Mason.
"We always thought that was the smells were due to gasoline fumes from the truck loading docks on the other side of the wall," according to James E. Larson, a computer supervisor. "But when we looked we often couldn't find any trucks. Now we wonder if leaking chemicals were not the cause of the problems," he said.
Mason said the Army Institute of Research at Walter Reed is planning an investigation and that inspectors from the Maryland Air Quality Resources Board and other state agencies are expected to look at the site on Monday. Abrams, of the county's environmental protection department, said the agency is consulting its lawyer to see whether it has any jurisdiction in the incident.