Niles police and firefighter/paramedics responded about 12:32 PM Thursday May 23, 2019 to a report of an activated fire alarm with a small fire at MicroLink Devices, 6457 West Howard Street Niles, Il. Engine 3’s crew on arrival at the Microlink Devices plant reported nothing showing with staff at the business reporting smoke in a maintenance room. Niles Fire Department Battalion Chief 2 reported a small fire involving a hazardous material that was extinguished. The small fire was located in the northwest corner of the building, and the hazard was categorized as internal. The hazard apparently did not involve any outdoor release.
About 40 employees at the plant were evacuated when the building’s automatic alarm was activated. Firefighters searched for some employees that were initially missing, but it was later determined that all employees were safely evacuated.
Morton Grove Fire Department Squad 4 was request by 12:41 p.m. Firefighter/paramedics from Park Ridge and Skokie also responded to assist Niles firefighters.
Firefighters initially determined there was possibly a phosphine gas or chemical spill or contamination that occurred inside the building. Phosphine (PH₃) is a colorless, toxic, flammable, and explosive gas at room temperature that sometimes smells like garlic or decaying fish. Pure phosphine, which is simply a Phosphorus atom with three Hydrogen atoms, is odorless, but technical grade samples (less pure with other contaminants) produce the garlic or decaying fish odor.
Firefighters were told that workers were cleaning a 30-gallon drum containing the chemical phosphorus at or near the area where the fire occurred, and that phosphine gas was released. Phosphine gas is flammable and explosive at room temperature. In certain conditions involving technical grade phosphine, the unpure chemical with diphosphine (P2H2) can spontaneously ignite in air.
According to the CDC’s independent Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry, when phosphine burns it produces a dense white cloud of phosphorus pentoxide, P2O5 fume. This fume is a severe respiratory tract irritant due to the rapid formation of orthophosphoric acid (phosphoric acid), H3PO4, on contact with water — including when inhaled to contact the moisture in the lining of the respiratory tract. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) phosphine is very toxic by inhalation at extremely low concentrations.
Phosphine is a respiratory tract irritant that attacks primarily the cardiovascular and respiratory systems causing peripheral vascular collapse, cardiac arrest and failure, and pulmonary edema.
Phosphine, which is used in the semi-conductor industry, is a toxic gas that is poisonous and is an irritant if inhaled. Phosphine is also considered reactive because it can spontaneously explode or ignite in air — especially where there is inadequate ventilation. According to NCBI, phosphine should be kept in a closed container in a well-ventilated room and away from air, oxidizing materials and combustibles.
It was not initially confirmed whether phosphine is also used at the plant for semi-conductor manufacturing processes.
No Safety Data Sheets for materials located at the plant were referred to on the official website for MicroLink Devices when checked Friday morning. Phosphine, as a material used in manufacturing, is regulated by OSHA.
Following the small fire and during the cleanup, fire department Hazmat De-Con was ongoing in a small area. Five ambulances were on scene, apparently for standby as a precaution, but no injuries were reported or confirmed.
Firefighters deployed hazardous material decontamination pools and setup a decontamination area for firefighters exiting the building.
After monitoring devices were used about 3:15 p.m. to determine that the air quality was safe inside the building, the fire department released control of the building back to owners and management.
According to their official website, MicroLink Devices designs and manufactures epitaxial material (an overlayer in semi-conductor technology) used in cellular phones and other wireless devices, and the design and manufacture of solar cells and solar sheets for a variety of applications, including unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), spacecraft, and terrestrial collectors.
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