Something strange went on this weekend at a manufacturing plant in Salem, Massachusetts. After dozens of workers appeared to fall acutely sick, it was suspected that a mysterious chemical leak was the cause. However, authorities have since speculated that they may have been battling with a more peculiar situation: a “mass hysteria” event.
It all began on Sunday afternoon when firefighters were called to the Thermal Circuits plant to investigate a chlorine leak, CBS Boston reports. A crew donning hazmat suits entered the building and quickly resolved the problem. No one was injured and the chlorine levels returned to normal.
All appeared to be well until the emergency services were called once again later that evening. Dozens of workers had fled out of the plant complaining of breathing problems, nausea, and severe dizziness. In total, around 30 workers were hospitalized and one person even appeared to suffer a seizure.
However, firefighters said they didn’t detect any chlorine in the building during their second visit.
In a statement received by Boston 25 News, the Salem Fire Department said the emergency services "found no contaminant that would be hazardous."
"New carpeting was being installed in the building that did leave odors, but no hazardous or dangerous readings were detected."
So, what the hell went on?
Fire Chief Alan Dionne told CBS Boston that the event was "mass hysteria" and described "a panic in the building."
Mass hysteria, or collective hysteria, is a phenomenon that’s been documented throughout history. Researchers don’t fully understand the psychological in-and-outs of it, but it typically describes the en masse spontaneous development of identical physical or emotional symptoms among a group of people.
One of the most notable instances of collective hysteria is the 1983 West Bank fainting epidemic. Nearly 1,000 people, virtually all of them teenage Palestinian girls living in the West Bank, were hospitalized between March and April 1983 after falling acutely ill and fainting. Due to the heated political climate in the area, many suspected a malicious "environmental irritant”. Yet no poisons were found.
A report by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) argued that some of the girls might have been poisoned by a hydrogen sulfide gas; however, the vast majority of cases were just young women with psychogenic illness, perhaps exacerbated by the high levels of stress associated with living in the West Bank area in the 1980s.
It might seem unlikely, but collective hysteria can provoke a powerful response. Until official investigations are finished up, it's too early to conclude that this is what went down in Salem this week. A spokesman said the plant would "absolutely not" be reopening on Monday.