Acute health effects after exposure to chlorine gas released after a train derailment

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In January 2005, a train derailment on the premises of a textile mill in South Carolina released 42 to 60 tons of chlorine gas in the middle of a small town. Medical records and autopsy reports were reviewed to describe the clinical presentation, hospital course, and pathology observed in persons hospitalized or deceased as a result of chlorine gas exposure. Eight persons died before reaching medical care; of the 71 persons hospitalized for acute health effects as a result of chlorine exposure, 1 died in the hospital. The mean age of the hospitalized persons was 40 years (range, 4 months-76 years); 87% were male. The median duration of hospitalization was 4 days (range, 1-29 days). Twenty-five (35%) persons were admitted to the intensive care unit; the median length of stay was 3 days. Many surviving victims developed significant pulmonary signs and severe airway inflammation; 41 (58%) hospitalized persons met PO2/FIO2 criteria for acute respiratory distress syndrome or acute lung injury. During their hospitalization, 40 (57%) developed abnormal x-ray findings, 74% of those within the first day. Hypoxia on room air and PO2/FIO2 ratio predicted severity of outcome as assessed by the duration of hospitalization and the need for intensive care support. This community release of chlorine gas caused widespread exposure and resulted in significant acute health effects and substantial health care requirements. Pulse oximetry and arterial blood gas analysis provided early indications of outcome severity.

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