It could take days or weeks to determine final cause of Beach Park chemical leak
It could take days or weeks for authorities to determine the cause of a hazardous chemical leak in Beach Park that sent 37 people to hospitals Thursday and forced residents to lock themselves in their houses for more than five hours.
Lake County sheriff's Sgt. Chris Covelli said criminal charges are possible for those involved in causing the anhydrous ammonia leak near Green Bay Road and 29th Street at 4:25 a.m. Thursday.
An Illinois State Police inspector is investigating the tractor and trailer that hauled the chemical in two, 2-ton "nurse" tanks. The sheriff's office is also investigating, Covelli said.
The charges would depend on whether the investigation shows negligence, a violation of agricultural laws or other traffic infractions, he said.
"We'll coordinate with them (state police) to determine the cause and whether charges should be filed, based on our and their investigation," he said. "It could be several days to a week or even more. We want to make sure we are thorough."
Anhydrous ammonia has uses including in agriculture as a fertilizer and as an industrial refrigerant. It is transported and stored as a liquid and becomes a gas when it comes in contact with the atmosphere. In the gas form, it is colorless with pungent, suffocating fumes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Contact can cause skin irritation and breathing problems.
Seven of 37 people sent to hospitals with breathing issues were listed in critical condition, Covelli said. Several of the more severely injured required intubation, he said.
The injured included 11 firefighters, two sheriff's deputies, one Zion police officer and the unidentified driver of a tractor, Covelli said.
Several people who passed by the scene and were caught in the chemical plume also were injured and had to be rescued by fire personnel, Covelli said. Another 15 people were evaluated at the scene but not taken to the hospital.
A preliminary investigation shows the tractor was hauling the tanks when the ammonia gas was released into the air, Covelli said. A sheriff's sergeant and deputy were called to the area to check on the tractor.
Once they stepped outside, they were overcome by fumes and retreated to their vehicles.
People living within a mile of the site were immediately ordered to remain sheltered in their houses until the all-clear was issued at 10 a.m., authorities said. Police used social media and automated phone alerts calls to make the alert, and several schools closed for the day.
In total, 140 first responders were called to the scene, Covelli said. The Beach Park Fire Department had 25 ambulances available to run victims to area hospitals, and the sheriff's office called in 20 police officers from neighboring departments to help close the perimeter from vehicular and pedestrian traffic.
Kathy Troher, a spokeswoman at Advocate Condell Medical Center in Libertyville, said seven people were taken to Condell via ambulance, and an eighth person drove to the hospital. Seven of those victims were discharged by noon, she said.
Covelli said door-to-door well-being checks started after the 10 a.m. all-clear was issued. He said the checks continued until about 1 p.m.
People who still feel ill effects could go to the hospital, but he doesn't anticipate the injury toll will climb significantly in the next 24 hours.
Dr. Jerry Leikin, director of Medical Toxicology OMEGA at Northshore University Health System Glenbrook Hospital, said the "pulmonary injury is like a chemical burn" to the lungs and could potentially result in long-term breathing problems.
He said the lungs are able to heal to a certain extent, but other factors -- such as smoking -- could make the damage more severe.
"It really depends on how much was inhaled," Leikin said. "Everything in toxicology is based on the dose."