Science Center evacuated after toxic fumes set off fire alarm

Fire Fighters in Astro Suit
Fire fighters in proximity suits. Photo by Lucero Garcia / el Don

Byline: Sergio Gutierrez and Jon Espinoza

The month-old Science Center was evacuated and classes canceled for about two hours Monday morning after a faulty ventilation system caused buildup of toxic fumes from a routine chemistry experiment.

Students in a general chemistry class on the third floor were boiling sulfuric acid at about 8:30 a.m. when the fume hoods failed to filter out the resulting sulfur trioxide.

“The hood is supposed to suck up all the chemicals and push it out into the atmosphere,” said chemistry professor William Nguyen. “What happened was the gas was not sucked efficiently and the gas, you know, it’s like smoke so it went up to the fire alarm and activated the fire alarm.”       

Orange County Fire Authority entered the building about 9 a.m. wearing full body silver protective suits in order to identify any possible threats. A photo posted to the @ocfirefighters Instagram Stories later in the day showed a yellow air duct hose coming out of room 311 in the Science Center with the text “ventilation fan” and “hazmat” placed over it.     

At about 11:30 a.m. the Science Center was reopened and all in-person classes resumed normal schedule. No injuries were reported.

All experiments requiring the use of a fume hood are being postponed until the filtration systems are fixed.

Chemistry faculty met with the building’s architect on Tuesday and Nguyen said he will be recreating the sulfur experiment tomorrow to see if the problem can be resolved. 

“If you hear a fire alarm tomorrow then you know it’s not working,” Nguyen said.

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The $70 million Science Center first welcomed students last month. Construction was paid for with Measure Q funds and includes state-of-the-art laboratories for students majoring in biology, chemistry and Earth sciences.

Fire fighters in proximity suits. Photo by Jon Espinoza

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