A K-12 school in Lakewood, Colorado, was closed yesterday after a hazmat scare that turned out to be caused by shreds of Habanero peppers scattered on the playground. The school was evacuated after students and teachers suffered skin and eye irritation from what was originally described as an unknown toxic irritant.
Firefighters, police, and Hazmat crews circled the Jefferson County Open School just before 1 p.m. Firefighters with monitors were able to pinpoint the toxic substance as coming from the playground, but the peppers were not found until later. Students initially reported symptoms after coming back inside after recess.
The wind was blowing from the northwest at about 15 mph. Chemicals in pepper spray and fertilizer were considered, but ruled out.
Environmental investigators later discovered the Habaneros. It was thought that the pieces came from about six peppers that were strewn in the wood chips on the playground. Investigators do not know how or when the peppers were scattered.
30 children and one teacher’s aide were treated. Seven of the children went to the hospital. The remainder were decontaminated by firefighters, who set up a tent and showers to rinse the victims off. The rest of the school students and staff were taken to a church down the street. The school e-mailed parents to let them know of the situation.
The Jefferson County Open School has about 500 students and is located in Lakewood, just outside Denver.
Melissa Reeves, a Jefferson County Public Schools spokeswoman said that coming in contact with oil from the Habanero peppers would cause many of the allergic-like symptoms that caused the school to be closed, including skin and eye irritation.
Habanero peppers are among the hottest chili peppers in the world, rating between 100,000 and 350,000 on the Scoville heat scale, which is used to rate the hotness of peppers. Jalapeno peppers are only 2,500 to 5,000, and Serrano peppers 6,000 to 23,000. Pepper spray rates at 5,300,000 on the Scoville scale.
People handling Habaneros generally wear gloves to avoid the oils, which can be very painful if contacting eyes or open wounds. Concentrated Habanero juices can cause skin blisters.
Poblanos, jalapenos, and bell peppers are in the same family as Habaneros. Unripe Habaneros are green. Ripe Habaneros are most often orange or red.
Habaneros are said to have health benefits including Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease prevention, and decreased cancer risk. They are high in vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber, but the American Institute for Cancer Research says in order to see anti-cancer benefits a person would have to eat a lot of peppers, approximately eight Habaneros in a week for a 200-pound man.
And although Capsaicin, the compound in peppers that is responsible for the fiery taste, may have health benefits, eating too much of it can be harmful, so anyone considering using Habaneros for health reasons is advised to talk to their doctor, particularly if they have digestive system problems.
The Denver-area school remained closed on Tuesday for decontamination from the Habanero peppers. School surfaces and playground equipment are being wiped clean and wood chips on the playground are being replaced. The school is expected to reopen on Wednesday, but the investigation is ongoing.
By Beth A. Balen