Christian Martineau said his partner and two sons, Olivier, 4, and Vincent, 6, were going to meet him in Trois-Rivières, Que., on Saturday morning.
Around 11 a.m., the boys were outside waiting to leave, said Martineau. They smelled sulfur in the air outside their South Shore home but were not alarmed, because that happens in their neighbourhood from time to time.
What they didn’t know was just over a kilometre down the road, five tonnes of titanium tetrachloride had leaked at the Kronos chemical plant. Titanium tetrachloride, when mixed with water, turns into hydrochloric acid. Because of the water content of Saturday's snow, a white cloud of the latter substance formed over Kronos.
Once in the car, both boys started to cough almost simultaneously. Martineau’s partner also experienced some symptoms.
That evening, their symptoms worsened. Martineau describes his boys as looking incredibly pale following inhaling the air near Kronos. Then they started gasping for air and vomiting.
"Things got much worse. They were at the point where they were completely struggling to breathe," he said.
No diagnosis from doctors
Martineau took his sons to the Trois-Rivières hospital. Doctors ruled out the flu and couldn’t provide a precise diagnosis. They were treated as though it was an asthma attack, and while they’re feeling much better now, they’re still experiencing some symptoms.
Martineau praises the staff at the hospital, saying he's sure the illness was caused by his sons' exposure to toxic chemical fumes, not an illness they might have caught elsewhere.
"With a flu… it’s not like there are three people with exactly the same symptoms at the same time, even if it’s very, very contagious," he said.
Officials said health repercussions unlikely
At the time of the leak, authorities said the likelihood of anyone experiencing any major symptoms was slim because people were removed from the area early on.
Fifteen homes and three factories were evacuated at the time as a preventative measure. As well, a perimeter of 400 metres was set up to prevent people from being exposed to the chemical.
According to the American Environmental Protection Agency, hydrochloric acid is "corrosive to the eyes, skin, and mucous membranes. Acute (short-term) inhalation exposure may cause eye, nose and respiratory tract irritation and inflammation and pulmonary edema in humans."
Titanium tetrachloride, according to the EPA, is used in a variety of products, including in the production of titanium metal, titanium dioxide and titanium pigments.
People exposed to the compound may experience difficulty breathing or a burning sensation in the eyes or on the skin.
Stricter regulations required, says Martineau
Martineau isn’t planning on suing the city, but chose to share his story hoping rules around alerting citizens of chemical leaks will change.
He had to contact the city to find out what happened, and at the time his kids were outside, he had no idea there’d been a leak.
He said there should be something like a siren in the event that it happens again.
The City of Varennes refused to comment.