Multiple agencies, including the Sappi paper mill special response team, arrive at a reported chemical exposure incident Thursday at the New Balance factory in Skowhegan. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

SKOWHEGAN — At least five people were taken to the hospital Thursday after a report of exposure to an unknown substance at the New Balance shoe-making factory prompted an evacuation and large response from hazardous-materials teams.

By 7 p.m. Thursday evening, Skowhegan Fire Chief Shawn Howard confirmed that there may have been up to six transported to the hospital for difficulty breathing and eye irritation, but all have been released.

It remained a mystery Thursday night what caused employees to experience symptoms.

“We’re dealing with an industrial mill setting here. There are a lot of solvents that they use, and we went through those solvents one by one and tried to narrow down what was causing these people to become ill,” Howard said. “At this point, we can’t answer that question.”

Of the solvents used at the factory, Howard said that nothing new has been introduced.

“New Balance does a great job with quality control with everything,” Howard said.

Howard said the fire department received the call at 1:16 p.m. at 12 Walnut St. of two employees experiencing shortness of breath and eye irritation/burning. Two patients turned into five, which then turned to a dozen and eventually more than 20, he said.

Earlier in the afternoon, Fire Captain Ty Strout said that the cause of the employees’ symptoms was likely linked to the fourth floor of the New Balance building and that the unknown substance then “trickled down” to lower floors.

Some of those employees were loaded onto a bus while officials investigated. Strout said that an initial air quality test came back “normal at this time.”

Around 70 employees were decontaminated before leaving the scene and given gowns to wear. They were given their clothes in bags with instructions to wash them immediately.

Those that were showing symptoms, but not transported to the hospital recovered quickly when outside of the factory and in fresh air.

“It’s an unknown,” Howard said. “We can’t say definitively that this is what (they) were exposed to. Because of that, we have to go to the extreme to make sure that everyone is safe. … For a lot of those individuals, it’s not what they wanted to hear.”

Howard said as of now, the factory was safe for employees, though it would be up to New Balance to decide whether or not employees will return to work Friday. New Balance said in a statement Thursday that the company was “cooperating with local emergency services to investigate a situation at our Skowhegan factory today after several associates reported unusual symptoms.”

“All necessary precautionary measures are being taken to ensure the health and safety of our associates,” the company statement said.

 

The employee was having trouble breathing and was experiencing eye irritation. Soon, officials learned that 25 to 35 employees inside were experiencing the same symptoms.

“It started with one employee that called, and as time went on, the situation got drastically worse,” Strout said.

The fire department told employees to evacuate the building, Strout said. When responders arrived, five people were taken to nearby Redington-Fairview General Hospital for treatment.

Multiple agencies, including the Sappi paper mill special response team, arrive Thursday at a reported chemical exposure incident at the New Balance factory in Skowhegan. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

All local ambulance and mutual aid departments responded to the scene, as did the Central Maine Hazmat Team, comprised of Sappi paper mill and the Augusta and Waterville fire departments. Augusta Fire Department and Sappi Paper were doing decontamination on scene, Strout said, and all infected people would remain on a bus until the issue was identified.

By 4:45 p.m., 30 or so employees could be seen leaving, with a steady stream of vehicles leaving Walnut Street from the factory parking lot. Several could be seen wearing a hospital gown and towels.

By the end of the evening, the fire chief couldn’t pin an exact cause for the incident but said that workplace negligence was definitely not a factor and that the investigation will be ongoing for the next few days. Howard added that New Balance had been working closely with them.

“At this point we think that everyone is safe. Officials from New Balance are working hand-in-hand with us and I hope that in a couple of days that we have more answers,” Howard said. “(New Balance) will make that decision. As far as we’re concerned, the mill is safe, we have ventilated and we’ve gone through, we’ve rechecked and there’s nothing in there with all of the instruments we’ve used to say this is unsafe.”

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