More than eighty elementary school children from Public School 20 in Flushing, Queens became sick after drinking contaminated water from the school’s water fountains.
Students of PS 20, called the John Brown School, complained of stomachaches and vomiting in the early afternoon, prompting the school principal to call 911, according to a New York Times article. Emergency services used Metropolitan Transportation Authority buses to transport the children to Flushing Hospital and New York Hospital Queens for treatment. The children said they had drank from the fountains although some said they noticed the school’s toilet and fountain water were a pink color, which school officials now believe contained an air-conditioning chemical.
A new wing recently completed at the school in which the central air conditioning stopped working, causing the school to call Bayside Refrigeration for service. The contractor made repairs to the air conditioning system equipment on the school’s roof at about noon.
Marge Feinberg of the Department of Education told the New York Times that, “It looks like some of the air conditioner chemicals went into the water supply from the roof.”
While a laboratory is testing the water to determine the substance, medical personnel were treating the children on the assumption that they ingested a chemical called propylene glycol. The New York Daily News reports that it is a sweet-tasting substance used in nontoxic antifreeze.
"Probably because [the chemical] was sweet, they kept drinking the water," Dr. Glen Asaeda of the Fire Department of New York told the New York Daily News.
However, according to the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (ATSDR), propylene glycol is practically odorless and tasteless. It is a clear, colorless, slightly syrupy liquid used in many products including food, cosmetics, coolant and antifreeze. The agency generally considers the chemical safe, but it can be toxic at high levels.
A similarly named chemical called ethylene glycol is often an ingredient in coolant and antifreeze also. Ethylene glycol is a clear, odorless, slightly viscous liquid with a sweet taste. Unlike propylene glycol, ingestion of ethylene glycol can cause serious and sometimes fatal health effects. It causes central nervous system depression, which may be accompanied by nausea, vomiting and abdominal cramps. Metabolites of ethylene glycol produce severe metabolic acidosis and damage to the brain, heart and kidneys. Severe poisoning is potentially fatal if treatment is inadequate or delayed.
Drinking even small amounts (from 1 to 3 ounces) of ethylene glycol can result in damage to the kidneys if the poisoning left untreated.
The Department of Environmental Protection, Department of Health and Department of Education are investigating the incident.