A vapor cloud of chemical fumes sickened 77 school children and four adults on the campus of a school near San Diego Tuesday.
The fumes were likely produced by a chemical spill at the YMCA located approximately a quarter of a mile from the campus of Rio Seco School in Santee, fire officials said.
Children and adults complained of a strong odor at around 9 a.m., after classes began at the K-8 school. When dozens of people began to experience burning eyes, nausea and shortness of breath, school officials notified parents and called San Diego County Sheriff's Deputies and Heartland Fire, according to district officials.
Students were told to shelter in place as crews worked to identify the source of a bleach-like smell.
Seventy-seven children and four adults were treated on scene at triage tents set up near the athletic field. They were then taken to nearby hospitals as a precaution, according to Santee School District Superintendent Cathy A. Pierce, Ed.D.
Many were transported to a local hospital by school bus.
Those transported were said to be in good condition, according to Santee Fire Chief Richard Mattick. The superintendent added that one child even returned to school after being discharged.
Early Tuesday or late Monday approximately 300 gallons of a bleach solution or sodium hypochlorite were spilled at the nearby YMCA, according to Dave Williams, Battalion Chief San Diego Fire Hazmat.
Workers used a chemical to try and neutralize it, which may have caused a vapor cloud, Williams said.
The amount of bleach solution that spilled was just below the odor threshold – or the level at which humans can smell it, he said.
Depending on the weather conditions, fumes from a spill like that could dissipate quickly or linger for hours creating pockets of fumes, he added.
Devon O'Dell arrived at the school to pick up her son, Ryan. The eighth grader is in cancer remission and his immune system is too weak to be exposed to the fumes, she said. Ryan's doctor faxed over a note demanding that Ryan leave school as soon as possible.
When he left the building, Ryan told NBC 7 students were having panic attacks inside his classroom.
Dozens of parents were across the street from the school waiting for word from the school.
A parent of a third grader said her son has heart problems and asthma. She said she received an automated call from school saying "come pick up your student" but no other details.
When she arrived, she said she couldn't get in touch with her son. She was worried he had been taken to the hospital.
“I’m just panicky. I’m here because my daughter, she’s in first grade and I don’t know if she’s scared,” said parent Erin Glieer.
“I’m paranoid anyway when it comes to my kids,” said parent Clint August. “On a scale of 1 to 10, probably a 9. Maybe it’s not necessary but that’s just me. They’re our children. That’s how we think as parents.”
Santee School District issued a statement regarding the incident:
"The safety of our students and staff is our number one priority. Students are being kept inside for their safety. We will ensure they have food, water, and all necessities. The fire department and hazmat is on the scene. We are following their directions. Medical personnel is on site to assist anyone in need. All of our actions are geared toward keeping students and staff safe."
Those parents who wanted to pick up their children for early release were told to park at the Food 4 Less and walk to the school. For more information, parents can call Rio Seco School at 619-956-5500.
Deputies shut down Cuyamaca Street between Mast Boulevard and Mission Creek Drive due to the incident. The school is located south of Mast Boulevard and north of State Route 52.
The YMCA facility was also evacuated. Officials determined there was no public health risk just before 11 a.m.
Shortly thereafter, classes and normal school activities resumed, according to the school district.