Bolton Hall HazMat Incident
The Milwaukee Fire Department's Hazardous Material Response Team removed the refrigerator from the building at approximately 2:30 PM.
Hazardous Material Response Team being decontaminated as a precautionary measure upon completion of their work
After the HazMat Team temporarily sealed the leak, the refrigerator was moved to an outdoor area near the Kenilworth Building. There, a licensed hazardous waste vendor, who had been called on an emergency basis, safely purged the unit of remaining SO2 refrigerant gas.
This was a General Electric Type V-5-C 'home-style' refrigerator, capacity of 1.75 pounds of SO2 refrigerant.
In the end, the simple matter of defrosting an old refrigerator became a very dangerous situation for two employees and a very expensive hazardous material problem for the campus.
To prevent any repeat occurrences of this problem and upon the recommendation of the Milwaukee Health Department, the Department of University Safety & Assurances requests that all Building Chairs conduct an inspection of their buildings to determine if any pre 1960's refrigerators are present so they may be safely removed and properly disposed of. University Safety & Assurances further requests that the Building Chairs report the results of their findings by August 18, 2000. University Safety & Assurances will arrange for transportation and proper disposal of old refrigerators at no cost to departments.
How can I identify one of these old refrigerators?
There are several key features that will help to quickly identify whether a refrigerator may have sulfur dioxide or ammonia refrigerant:
- The evaporator coils are mounted on top of refrigerator (a museum piece!)
- Refrigerator is roughly 5' to 5'6" tall.
- Refrigerator has mechanical door latch (no magnetic closers).
- Freezer box is inside of refrigerator (no 2-door or side-by-side designs).
- Door seal is black rubber (no foam or magnetic weather stripping on door).
- Refrigerator has cork or mineral wool insulation (no foam or fiberglass insulation).
- Refrigerator is very heavy.
- Sheet metal is very thick, shape is very rounded.
- Brand names may possibly include Kelvinator, Gibson, Frigidaire, General Electric.
Removal/Disposal of Very Old Refrigerators
On Friday morning, July 14, 2000, while defrosting a very old refrigerator on the 6th floor of Bolton Hall, an employee accidentally punctured the freezer coil and the unit began leaking sulfur dioxide (SO2) refrigerant gas.
Sulfur dioxide, as well as ammonia and methylene chloride, was used as a refrigerant gas of choice in the 1940's and early 1950's until less toxic freon gas (now known to be environmentally unfriendly to the Earth's ozone layer) became widely available.
Due to the potentially high toxicity of the sulfur dioxide the Milwaukee Fire Department Hazardous Materials Team and the Milwaukee Health Department were called to manage the situation. The University Police Deptartment was directed to conduct a non-emergency evacuation of the building as a precautionary measure. There was concern that sulfur dioxide might enter the ventilation system and impact other areas of the building, especially as the refrigerator was taken down the elevator and through the halls to the loading dock. It turned out that there was no danger to any other building occupants. The employee and a colleague, who were briefly exposed to high concentrations of the gas vapor, were examined by paramedics on the scene.
The HazMat Team temporarily sealed the leak and the refrigerator was moved by truck to an outdoor area near the Kenilworth Building. There, a licensed hazardous waste vendor, who had been called on an emergency basis, safely purged the refrigerator of the toxic gas In the end, the simple matter of defrosting an old refrigerator became a very dangerous situation for two employees and a very expensive hazardous materials problem for the campus. We estimate that disposing of this old refrigerator on an emergency basis cost the campus in excess of $15,000 (including the lost time of the employees who were told to evacuate the building)!
In our modern society it is easy to forget that just a few decades ago materials that have since been classified as extremely hazardous were routinely used in consumer goods. In the late 1970's and early 1980's, when Wisconsin Electric Power Company offered modest cash payments for old refrigerators and other energy-wasting appliances, most old refrigerators like the one in Bolton Hall were removed from everyday use. Also, with the advent of frost-free refrigerators the old rule of thumb, "never use sharp objects when defrosting a refrigerator" has become neglected. To prevent a repeat occurrence of this problem and upon the recommendation of the Milwaukee Health Department, I request that all Building Chairs conduct an inspection of their buildings to determine if any pre-1960's refrigerators are present so they may be safely removed and properly disposed of. I would further request that the Building Chairs report back to me the results of their findings by August 18, 2000. EHS&RM will arrange for transportation and disposal of old refrigerators at no cost to departments.
Updated November 16, 2007