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Newton Medical Center's ER reopens

Photo by Erin Evans

Photo by Erin Evans

COVINGTON- Newton Medical Center's Emergency Room was shut down for 12 hours Friday after employees at a local industry who were exposed to a potentially hazardous substance came there for treatment.

According to Covington Police Department spokesman Capt. Ken Malcom, 10 employees of the industry Pure TalkUSA at 14230 Lochridge Blvd. became ill in the early morning hours after one employee opened a box of cellphone batteries and pulled apart two fused batteries. A white powdery substance was emitted and the employee and nine others immediately began experiencing a burning sensation in their eyes and skin. The employee who opened the package also experienced numbness in the hands. There was a note on the battery indicating the act was deliberate, Malcom said.

Employees drove themselves to the emergency room, where medical personnel called the Covington Police Department.The FBI, GBI and Department of Homeland Security were also called in to investigate.

The ER was quarantined and decontaminated by the Department of Defense's Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team.

By 2:30 p.m., some 12 hours after the incident began, a chemist working for the FBI had determined the powdery substance was part of the battery itself and not a contaminant.

The source of the note was still under investigation as of late Friday afternoon.

"The good news is there was no foreign substance in the battery that caused people to get sick. It was not something that was created," said Malcom. "The hospital is clean. There is no contamination; there is no reason to feel unsafe."

Pure TalkUSA Co-owner Michael Geoffroy said all employees had been released from the hospital and were heading home late Friday afternoon to rest.

He said the family-owned business is not a manufacturing or refurbishing facility, but is a shipping center for pre-inspected, ready-for-retail parts. He believes the note on the battery was potentially written a long time ago and had nothing to do with Friday's incident. The company is investigating the matter with its supplier, he said.

"It's almost like a Shakespearean comedy that isn't funny, a tragic set of errors," he said.