Investigation closed in toxic substance scare

COVINGTON -- It was a series of unfortunate events that resulted in a scare that closed Newton Medical Center's Emergency Room for 12 hours last Friday as emergency workers raced to identify a substance that sickened 10 employees of a local industry.

The investigation is now closed as there is no evidence that any criminal act took place, according to Capt. Philip Bradford with the Covington Police Department. But the pieces of information that investigators had on Friday appeared to indicate something sinister enough that the FBI and Department of Homeland Security were called in to assist with the investigation.

First, the company where the incident took place, Pure TalkUSA, fired an employee at midnight. Police were called to escort the employee from the property.

"She wasn't being unruly; she just didn't have a ride," Bradford said.

Shortly after, another employee opened a box of batteries and pulled apart two that were fused together; a white powdery substance was emitted, causing the employee's skin and eyes to burn and hands to go numb. Written on the battery were the words "You've been punked," initially leading investigators to believe the act was deliberate.

A total of 10 employees experienced symptoms from the powder that was discharged. They called poison control and went to the ER, and hospital staff called local authorities. Initially, investigators didn't know that the message had been written on the battery. The employee was quarantined and they had to wait until they could get a phone to her before more information could be obtained. The entire emergency room was shut down for 12 hours and decontaminated.

Upon inspection, the "note" written on the battery appeared to be old and fading, Bradford said. Pure TalkUSA sells refurbished cellphones and the Alcovy Road facility is strictly a shipping facility. Batteries and cellphones are shipped there after being refurbished and employees put the phones together and send them elsewhere.

The terminated employee was cleared as a suspect and there's no reason to think there was any ill will involved, he said.

"They could have gotten that box a month ago and it could have set on a shelf. It's not like someone targeted that location. It was all a series of unfortunate events," Bradford said.

Bradford praised all local agencies, including the Covington Fire Department, EMS and Newton County EMA, as well as hospital officials, for handling the situation by the book.

"It turned out to be a great training exercise because we want what the real thing gives us to hone our skills. We're ready if something like this really happens. Everybody did exactly what they were supposed to do," he said.