9 hospitalized after chemical incident at Florida produce facility

BELLE GLADE, Fla. — Nine people were hospitalized on Wednesday after a chemical incident at a Florida produce facility, officials said.

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The incident at Pioneer Growers in Belle Glade caused the lockdown of two nearby schools, according to WPTV.

Capt. Tom Reyes, a spokesperson for Palm Beach County Fire Rescue, said crews responded to the facility shortly after 8 a.m. EDT for “potential chemical and hazardous conditions.”

“Workers came in and, shortly thereafter, saw a large white fog coming from the back side of this plant,” Reyes said. “It was in the air and the wind was taking it to the south and to the west.”

Units responded within four minutes and evacuated the plant, WPBF-TV reported.

Two schools -- Belle Glade Elementary School and Lake Shore Middle School -- were placed on a precautionary lockdown, according to WPTV.

Reyes said the chemical involved was chlorine dioxide. The chemical is used in the chilling system of the facility to sanitize and extend the shelf-life of fruits and vegetables by destroying bacteria, viruses, yeasts, and molds, WPEC-TV reported.

“Chlorine dioxide by itself is not an especially toxic or dangerous material,” Reyes said.

According to WPTV, 21 employees complaining of discomfort were evaluated at the scene. Nine were taken to an area hospital.

Preston Trammell told the television station that he was at the facility for a job interview.

“It was like a puff of cloud, like a cumulus cloud, a real low cumulus cloud,” Trammell said.

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