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Toxic fumes force evacuation

Floor wax blamed for symptoms that sent 11 people to the hospital
by: patrick sherman, Sicken by a waxing compound that pooled unseen beneath display stands, an employee from the Babies ‘R’ Us store in Clackamas recovers in the fresh air.

The holiday rush came to an abrupt stop at the Babies 'R' Us location in Clackamas on Thursday morning as employees and shoppers alike were sickened by mysterious fumes that sent 11 to the hospital.

'A total of 34 people were affected,' said Lt. John Hopkins, public information officer for Clackamas County Fire District #1. 'Of those, ten exhibited serious symptoms, and we transported six.'

The store, located at 9650 SE 82nd Ave., was shut down and evacuated by fire officials, who used positive pressure fans to clear the air. Firefighters working inside the building were required to use their self-contained breathing apparatus.

'This all started today at 10:32 a.m., when we got a call about a woman unconscious in her car at Wal-Mart, about two blocks south of here,' Hopkins said. 'We were able to determine that she had just come from this location, so a crew came up here to investigate.'

Walking into the store at 11 a.m., the unprotected firefighters began to experience the same symptoms as other victims: shortness of breath, dizziness and also numbness and tingling around the lips and mouth.

'That's when they called for additional units and evacuated the store,' said Hopkins.

He went on to describe the smell associated with the hazardous fumes, explaining that he caught a whiff before the command post was moved upwind from the building.

'It's sort of a chemical smell - I've never smelled anything like it before,' he said.

At the request of fire officials, Tri-Met provided a bus to shelter the shoppers and employees forced into the cold by the evacuation.

'It's nice and warm onboard the bus, and that way we can keep everybody who might possibly have been affected together, and keep an eye on them,' said Hopkins.

The emergency also inconvenienced holiday shoppers, Sue Polzel of Redland among them. She drove into town looking for a gift for her granddaughter.

'I have five grandsons, but only one granddaughter, and I was looking for something for her,' said Polzel. 'I pulled up and I saw all these fire trucks and rescue vehicles, and I thought to myself, 'What on earth is happening here?''

'I guess I'll have to come back another day.'

As fire officials began their investigation, suspicion quickly turned to floor wax that had been applied inside the store the previous evening.

'That's the only thing that has changed,' Hopkins said. 'Nobody got sick yesterday, they waxed the floors overnight and this morning all this happens.'

A subsequent investigation determined that excess liquid wax had pooled underneath large display racks, giving off fumes that accumulated inside the building overnight. Although fire officials described the immediate symptoms of exposure to the fumes as 'moderate to serious,' no long-term health effects are expected.