Hazardous material contamination at the Johnston Recycling Center in Rhode Island caused the evacuation of the facility.

A container containing an unnamed substance, passed workers on a conveyor belt, entering processing equipment. There, the vessel broke, releasing vapor into the air, sending 14 people to area hospitals.

The incident was first noticed when a worker on the line noticed smoke emanating from machinery where sorting of material takes place.

"The line was stopped immediately and emergency procedures were enacted. Any worker expressing discomfort was transported to an area hospital for evaluation," Michael O'connell of the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation said.

Sorting was immediately halted following discovery of the gas, with between 30 and 40 workers in the building at the time of the incident. Some employees exposed to the vapors complained of nausea, headaches, irritation of the lungs and respiratory system, and irregular heartbeat.

The facility was closed for the day, as safety personnel work to uncover the nature of the leak. The building has been closed off to the public as a safety precaution.

The Materials Recycling Facility (MRF) was constructed for a cost of 12 million dollars, and was then the subject of an upgrade which costs $17 million. At over 76,000 square feet in size, it is one of the largest recycling facilities in New England. The 61 employees at the center currently process around 450 tons a day of recyclable materials. The facility is capable of handling 800 tons a day of single-stream waste.

Waste material from the public and businesses is sent to the MRF with plastic, cans, and other recyclables mixed together. Separation of the waste is accomplished through a combination of manual, mechanical and optical means.

"Manually sorting is most important at the very start of the sorting process, as items that are too large and too dangerous to go through the system are removed," company officials wrote [downloadable pdf] in a guide to the facility.

Early investigation reveals the container may have contained compounds meant for cleaning, before entering the shredder.

No serious injuries are expected from exposure to the chemical, according to company officials.

Fire departments from Cranston, North Providence, and Warwick Rhode Island responded to the scene of the release, in addition to local emergency services. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was alerted to the incident by company officials.

O'connell reminded Rhode Island residents in a statement that improperly-disposed recycling was likely the cause of this incident, which he stated made the situation preventable.

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