Patients and staff spilled outside into the fresh air and ambulances from towns around scrambled to help after several people began feeling ill at a busy Westport dental office late last Friday morning.
When they received an 11 a.m. call for a possible gas leak and as many as 25 people feeling sick at the Perfect Smiles office at 302 Village Way (Westport Village), Deputy Fire Chief Allen Manley said the Fire Department alerted the Bristol County Ambulance Task Force. Westport doesn't have enough ambulances to handle a medical emergency of that scale alone so relies on its neighbors for help.
The first crews to arrive reported that people were outside or leaving the building, several complaining of symptoms including nausea and dizziness.
After evaluating the patients and seeing that the situation was not as dire as feared, the first responders alerted other ambulance crews that they would not be needed.
Even so, Dr. David Ahearn of Perfect Smiles said it was quite a scene as "fire trucks from three to five towns showed up."
Everyone was evacuated except "there was a (dental) procedure going on and they couldn't leave in the midst of that," the deputy said. A dentist, patient and at least one assistant remained inside in a room that was shut off from the rest of the interior and received fresh air from the outside.
Dr. Ahearn said that fellow dentist Dr. Mary Jane Miranda had little choice but to carry on. The patient was in the midst of three root canals and crown work so the decision was made to finish the procedure.
"They opened the windows — the room has excellent natural ventilation— and kept going, right alongside Hazmat workers holding air testing monitors … Everything went well," Dr. Ahearn said.
Of those outside, one young woman whose symptoms were more severe was transported by a Tiverton ambulance to St. Anne's Hospital in Fall River. She was later released with no apparent lingering problems.
The deputy said he understands that another person who had left the building was later transported by family members to Rhode Island Hospital. That person, too, is said to be doing well.
Air testing indicated the culprit to be freon gas, most often used in refrigeration or air conditioning systems, Deputy Chief Manley said.
Dr. Ahearn said the situation was never as bad as those first reports indicated, although he believes rescuers "did a great job."
The situation began, he said, when first one young office staff member, then another began feeling ill. The Fire Department was called to make sure there were no air problems, he said, and tests on the indoor air revealed nothing.
Later, more sophisticated tests by a state Hazmat team revealed "small" amounts of a freon-like material outside near an air conditioning system — an amount that Dr. Ahearn said seemed unlikely to cause people to take ill.
As for 25 people, there were "hardly that many — I doubt there were 25 people in all of the dentist offices in town at that time, Dr. Ahearn said, adding that the discrepancy likely stemmed from word being passed along in the excitement of the moment.
They closed the office for the rest of the day and moved some of the work to a branch in Seekonk so that the air could be checked out thoroughly.
No problems were found inside "and we were back open on Saturday. The air inside is fine," Dr. Ahearn said, and probably was all along.
There was one disconcerting moment, Dr. Ahearn added. As crews were clearing out, suddenly several of the air monitors began sounding loudly.
The Hazmat crew said there was no cause for alarm, however. The culprit then appeared to be exhaust fumes from the elderly pickup truck being driven away by the triple root canal patient.
Dr. Ahearn said that Perfect Smiles' air conditioning uses a freon substitute (R-410a) for its cooling. Freon is described by a medical website as "colorless, volatile, toxic liquids and gases with a faintly sweet ethereal odour. Overexposure at concentrations of 11% or more may cause dizziness, loss of concentration, central nervous system depression and/or cardiac arrhythmia."