Chemical leak causes BNA evacuation on Sunday

Air test results indicate that the sample was a solvent, Butoxyethyl Acetate, commonly used in lacquers, varnishes, enamels and resins.
WSMV4's Sharon Danquah reports.
Published: Apr. 16, 2023 at 3:44 PM CDT|Updated: Apr. 18, 2023 at 5:14 AM CDT
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WSMV) - Nashville International Airport officials said they are looking into what caused a noxious odor in the C concourse that forced hundreds of people to evacuate Sunday afternoon.

BNA said the Nashville Fire Department conducted an air test and found Butoxyethanol Acetate to be present. The chemical is used in wood stains and finishes and can irritate the nose, and eyes, and cause headaches. It is also the reason hundreds of people started to cough uncontrollably in the concourse.

MNFD said one person was taken to Tri Star Summit with non-life-threatening injuries.

The Federal Aviation Administration issued a ground stop to facilitate the safe resumption of operations.

As people evacuated, NFD crews were seen wearing air packs and trying to track down the chemical.

“All of a sudden I noticed – it was very strange – I started noticing all these people with their shirts pulled up over their face,” traveler John Sloop said.

He was in the middle of the crowd evacuating Sunday, at one point moving toward the smell.

“I started to get closer to that area and all of a sudden my throat was getting scratchy as heck,” Sloop said.

“Then my son started coughing,” Jim Previtera said. He was traveling from Tampa, Florida. “I turned to him and kind of made a joke of it and realized he was coughing pretty good.”

He said when he smelled the chemical, it was familiar.

“Honestly, 31 years of law enforcement told me it was pepper spray,” Previtera said. “But in this day and age I thought it could possibly be a diversion for something worse.”

As he and his son evacuated, Previtera said he came across an orange stain on a wall near the garbage.

Professor Fred Guengerich at Vanderbilt University is a toxicology expert and said in order to give off an odor that strong, the acetate must have exceeded the limit set by OSHA (50 ppm). He also said the chemical could have come from airport construction.

“I still remain pretty convinced that what I inhaled was pepper spray,” said Previtera.

“This wasn’t something you could say ‘I’m not going to breath it in,’” Sloop said. “It was there, it was in the air.”

Concourse C was closed for several hours Sunday.

Airport officials said they are still investigating.