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Drain Cleaner Fumes Make 11 Sick, Force Partial Evacuation


Eleven employees of an optical shop at the Topanga Plaza shopping mall were treated for sore throats and dizziness and the mall was partially evacuated after fumes from an industrial drain cleaner spread through the business Monday morning, the Los Angeles Fire Department reported.

Authorities said the fumes spread into the Lens Crafters shop after the nontoxic drain cleaner was poured into a floor drain in California Pizza Kitchen, located above the optical shop at 6600 Topanga Canyon Boulevard in Canoga Park.

Authorities said the drain cleaner ate through plastic fittings in the drain pipe, then saturated a section of a fiber-board ceiling tile, which fell to the floor of Lens Crafters.

"When they put this stuff in the drain they didn't read the directions," said Marty Kazman, Los Angeles County deputy health officer. "It says right on the side of the container that it reacts with plastic."

Fumes filled Lens Crafters through the night and when employees arrived for work about 9 a.m., they immediately noticed a chemical odor.

"As soon as I walked in, it hit me right away," said Paula Legan, an assistant manager.

"It was a real chemical smell," added Terry Riley, also an assistant manager. "It smelled like mothballs."

Soon after, the employees of the shop began to complain of dizziness, nausea and scratchy throats. "I started feeling lightheaded and my tongue kind of got numb," said Crystal Moore, who works in the optical laboratory, close to where the collapsed ceiling tile was found.

The Fire Department's Hazardous Materials Unit was called and the 11 employees were taken outside and checked by paramedics. Firefighters closed off the south end of the mall but allowed the rest of the shopping center to remain open. The Broadway department store, which anchors the south end, was allowed to stay open after closing off its doors to the mall.

No fumes were detected in the pizza restaurant but it was also temporarily evacuated by firefighters as a precaution.

Battalion Chief Don Mello said none of the employees who complained of illness were hospitalized. "All their vital signs were good and we released them," he said.

The evacuated areas of the mall reopened about 12:30 p.m. after fumes were blown out of the building with Fire Department fans. However, Lens Crafters' optical lab remained closed throughout the day and its employees were sent home, Riley said. It was expected to reopen today, he said.

Kazman said the county health department ordered the mall to repair the pipe but ordered no other action.

Gary Nellis, a regional director for California Pizza Kitchen Inc., said the drain cleaner had been used routinely at the restaurant and had caused no previous problems.

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