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Leaking lithium-ion batteries sicken 13 at Fla. children’s development clinic

30 backup batteries for MRI machines had begun “off-gassing,” creating a hazmat incident in the Tampa facility


A police line marks off Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital’s outpatient clinic in Tampa.

Chloe Trofatter/Times

By Shauna Muckle
Tampa Bay Times

TAMPA, Fla. — Three employees were hospitalized after lithium-ion batteries started leaking hydrogen gas at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Outpatient Care in Tampa.

Hillsborough County Fire Rescue evacuated roughly 80 people from the building Thursday morning after the clinic reported an electrical smell, according to a media release. The smell came from the magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI area, which was storing 30 lithium-ion batteries as a backup power source for MRI machines, said Rob Herrin, the public information officer with fire rescue.

Three employees experienced respiratory symptoms and were hospitalized, hospital officials said in a statement. Fire rescue reported that they are in stable condition. The fire department screened 13 occupants for symptoms and did not disclose whether the remaining 10 had respiratory issues.

The 30 batteries started swelling and “off-gassing,” officials said, meaning they began emitting hydrogen gas. Swollen batteries are damaged and can trigger an explosive fire, per the Environmental Protection Agency.

Hydrogen gas is highly flammable and explosive Herrin said. Excessive concentrations of it compound fire risk.

Hazmat technicians removed the rack of batteries from the building late this afternoon, according to fire rescue. The batteries were placed in a substance that will neutralize them. Meanwhile, fans will ventilate remaining hydrogen gas from the building.

Hazmat technicians had to hold off on removing the batteries for several hours, as they swelled in their storage area and left little room for hazmat technicians to get inside, Herrin said.

“One of our responders likened it to try changing your car battery with your hood open about three inches,” he said. “These things [swelled] so much that... there [was] no room for our hazmat technicians to disconnect and remove the batteries.”

Two of the 100-pound batteries ruptured. Rupturing can be both a good and bad sign — it means those two batteries have lost pressure and are no longer likely to cause an explosion, Herrin said. But if too many batteries had ruptured at once, the influx of hydrogen gas could have triggered an explosive fire.

“If it’s more than two at a time, we don’t know what that might do,” he said.

Pasco County Fire Rescue and the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office’s bomb squad assisted the hazmat team at the scene, Herrin said.

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The 52,000-square-foot All Children’s outpatient clinic at 2220 Bruce B Downs Blvd., offers diagnostic services, surgery preparation and recovery, MRI scans and rehabilitations such as speech and physical therapy. Clinic services were cancelled Thursday and Friday.

All Children’s will later announce when the clinic will re-open to the public, hospital officials said in a statement.

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