Warsaw, N.C. — A quartet of Duplin County firefighters needed medical attention Friday, both to treat their symptoms and to solve the mystery of what made the men's eyes and lungs burn.
A family called the fire department to their home on Bowden Road in Warsaw, worried about the strange odor in their house.
"Their eyes were burning, their face was burning, they were coughing, having trouble breathing," said firefighter Joal Smith.
Smith and his men couldn't find any leak, but they did feel the effects. "Our eyes started burning. We started having difficulty," Smith said.
They coughed. They cried as if someone had sprayed tear gas at them.
"We had one firefighter that we thought was nauseated to the point where we said, 'We've got to get out of here,'" Smith said.
Capt. James Blackmore loaded his men and the family into an ambulance. When they arrived at a nearby hospital, it was doctors and nurses who solved the mystery.
“I knew it was something agricultural, not just from the farming, but from the training we’ve done up here," Blackmore said.
Duplin County is farm country; the house is just across the road from a big field ready for planting tobacco. The neighbors had inhaled chloropicrin, a chemical injected into the soil to fumigate fields and kill pests.
The farmers applied the chemical Thursday afternoon, and the cold, still atmosphere overnight likely concentrated the fumes. According to the EPA, chloropicrin is known to cause irritation of eyes, nose, throat and lungs.
"I've been doing this about 25 years, and I've never had anything like this happen before," Smith said. Luckily for firefighters and family, there are no lasting effects.