Five people were hospitalized Monday morning after carbon monoxide filled the inside of a downtown dry cleaning business, causing some employees to collapse.
Anchorage Fire Department crews were called just after 10 a.m. to Alaska Cleaners at 300 E. Fifth Ave. for a "gas leak" in the boiler room of the business, according to a statement from the Fire Department. Crews arrived one minute after the call, the statement said.
Fire Capt. David Bellville said that by that time, Alaska Cleaners employees had already evacuated the business and the building's doors were propped open in an effort to expel the odorless carbon monoxide. Bellville said it's believed that a grated vent on the front of the building had become clogged with ice amid recent freezing temperatures, trapping the carbon monoxide emitted from the dry cleaner's boiler system.
"There wasn't anywhere for that CO buildup to go," Bellville said. "So it just went inside of the main building itself, instead of venting outside like it's supposed to."
The temperature in downtown Anchorage hovered around 7 degrees late Monday morning, with thick fog. Joe Wegman, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said that fog's official name is "freezing fog." It's essentially fog made up of tiny, cold water droplets. The droplets freeze on contact when they touch anything below about 32 degrees, Wegman said.
As the fog lingers, Wegman said, it will continue to freeze in layers on anything from grates to tree branches. As to whether the freezing fog could lead to a clogged grate, Wegman said, "It's very possible, especially if the grate bars are very close together."
Bellville said each opening in the grate was about a quarter-inch square.
He said he didn't know how many people were inside the business Monday as the carbon monoxide built up.
The Anchorage Fire Department statement Monday said that at least one employee was taken to the hospital before fire crews arrived. Four additional patients were then taken to the hospital by ambulance, some in serious condition, for suspected carbon monoxide poisoning, AFD said.
Teuila Brown, an employee at Alaska Cleaners, said Monday that those hospitalized were employees. She said some of her co-workers had started to feel light-headed and dizzy that morning; they evacuated the building and "that's when people started collapsing," she said.
She said four people collapsed outside. One reported not being able to breathe well and another couldn't see well before collapsing to the ground, Brown said.
By 12:30 p.m. Monday, the fire crews had left the dry cleaner and reported that the area was clear. AFD Assistant Chief Erich Scheunemann said a total of five people were hospitalized due to the gas, and at least two were still in serious condition as of 11:30 a.m.
The Alaska Occupational Safety and Health Section is investigating the incident, said Deborah Kelly, director of the labor standards and safety division at the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development. Kelly said a typical investigation takes an average of one to two months.
Enstar Natural Gas Co. also responded to Alaska Cleaners Monday. Enstar spokeswoman Lindsay Hobson said that the cold and frost had contributed to the clogged vent Monday, among other factors.
Hobson encouraged people to invest in carbon monoxide detectors and to have their natural gas appliances regularly serviced by licensed, qualified contractors.
She said she did not know Monday whether the dry cleaning business had working carbon monoxide detectors.
Hobson said that carbon monoxide and natural gas are naturally odorless but carbon monoxide alarms can alert people to concentrations of the gas. Enstar and other utilities add a sulfur scent to natural gas so people can detect it if it leaks.
Hobson emphasized that breathing natural gas doesn't produce the health symptoms associated with carbon monoxide exposure, including headache, dizziness and confusion. She urged people to call 911 when they detect either gas, however, as a public safety issue.
"It is a non-toxic material but we certainly want people to notify us if they detect it," Hobson said.
Reporter Chris Klint contributed to this story.