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Massachusetts hazmat story
June 27, 2018
5 min to read

Did a Chemical Leak Hospitalize Dozens at a Vape Factory?

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Jim McDonald

An apparent chemical leak at a Massachusetts industrial manufacturer that hospitalized at least 20 employees was somehow transformed into a vape-related incident by reporters covering the story, and amplified by lazy editors and headline writers.

Thermal Circuits, a Salem, MA, manufacturer of “flexible, etched-foil heaters,” doesn’t appear to make e-cigarettes or vapor products. The company makes parts for a variety of applications, but vaping isn’t one of the many listed on its detailed website. The company has been in business since the 1950’s.

So why are local and national news sources describing the company’s facility as an “e-cigarette factory”? It seems to have begun with a live TV broadcast Sunday night from the site of the incident.

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Sunday the Salem fire department was called to the company’s facility twice, first in the afternoon for a reported chlorine leak. Then, according to the Boston Globe, after the plant had been cleared to begin production again, “Hazmat teams and firefighters were called to the plant, at 1 Technology Way, just after 9 p.m., after reports of multiple people overcome by gas. Workers flooded out of the building, into surrounding areas.”

“The possibility of 20 people down was reported, and medical personnel were directed to check all those streaming out of the building to be checked for inhalation problems,” said the paper. “Decontamination units were set up at Salem Hospital. Police were called to the hospital to assist with managing the crowd. State police were also on the scene. The building was evacuated.”

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Although the second incident seems from the employees' reactions to have been more serious, the fire department couldn’t find evidence of any spill or leak. The Salem fire chief suggested that it seemed like a “mass hysteria” event. At least 20 employees checked into local hospitals. The site was chaotic, and no one was sure what exactly was happening.

That’s when Tiffany Chan, a reporter for Boston CBS TV affiliate WBZ, went on the air live and described Thermal Circuits, saying, “They manufacture e-cigarettes, and possibly use chlorine as some type of heating chemical in these e-cigarettes.” Where did she hear that? No one knows, and she’s not talking. Vaping360 has requested answers by email and on Twitter, where she also reposted her story. She has not responded. Obviously, chlorine is not a vapor product component.

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National CBS News picked up the story early the next morning — including Chan’s live spot from the site — repeating the “e-cigarette factory” description of the company. CBS syndicated the story, and it ran mostly unchanged in other local and national news outlets. It was also picked up by Gizmodo, Newsweek, and Vice. The Vice writer tossed in a gratuitous popcorn lung joke. Newsweek added a vaping scare video above its article.

Meanwhile, local news sources started playing a journalistic version of the party game telephone. Some simply repeated the basic outline of the "e-cig factory" storyline, like NECN and Mass Live. Others went further, adding more detail.

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“Thermal Circuits was founded in 1955 to make components for a wide range of heaters,” wrote Dave Copeland in the Salem Patch. “In recent years the company has seen an uptick in business at its 52,000-square-foot facility in Salem as it started producing components used in electronic cigarettes to heat nicotine into a vapor. As many as 500 people work in three shifts at the Salem manufacturing facility.”

I asked Copeland by email where he got his information. He responded with a snarky comment about not “helping competitors.” That was more than I got from Tiffany Chan, or Gizmodo’s Jennings Brown, who have still not responded.

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It’s worth noting that the Boston Globe did straight reporting, not repeating any of the e-cigarette conjecture. They seem to be alone in that regard. Every other story found through Google searches contained copy or had a headline describing Thermal Circuits as a vape manufacturer.

Why would all of these reporters, editors, and headline writers not bother checking the Thermal Circuits website to understand what the business manufactures? Why wouldn’t they call the company and ask for a description? Where did the information originate, and why did they trust it?

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Thermal Circuits' spokesperson hasn't returned our calls, but American Vaping Association president Gregory Conley says that an employee at the company told him Tuesday they don’t manufacture vaping components. They’re certainly not registered with the FDA as a manufacturer. Nor does their very detailed website mention e-cigarettes as a product they make or supply.

So where did the story start? There may be no way to tell. It appears that Tiffany Chan believed it when she went on the air live on Sunday night. And it seems that all the other reporters, editors, and headline writers simply trusted her and repeated her story.

Was the mistake deliberate? Did someone think it served their interests to tie vaping to a hazardous chemical leak? Possibly. Boston and eastern Massachusetts is the epicenter of the pediatrician-driven moral panic around JUUL. Certainly every headline and paragraph describing Thermal Circuits as an “e-cigarette factory” contributes to the general mistrust of the product by the public, and that benefits the anti-vaping crowd. At the very least, it's unlikely that the story would have been picked up by multiple national news outlets without the spurious vaping connection. And probably nothing will be done to correct it.

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Jim McDonald

Vaping since: 12 years

Favorite products:

Favorite flavors: RY4-style tobaccos, fruits

Expertise in: Political and legal challenges, tobacco control haters, moral panics

Jim McDonald

Smokers created vaping without help from the tobacco industry or anti-smoking crusaders, and I believe vapers have the right to continue innovating to help themselves. My goal is to provide clear, honest information about the challenges vaping faces from lawmakers, regulators, and brokers of disinformation. I’m a member of the CASAA board, but my opinions aren’t necessarily CASAA’s, and vice versa. You can find me on Twitter @whycherrywhy

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