Lawyer: Chemicals in tea caused internal damage

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A woman who drank sweet tea that authorities say was mistakenly mixed with a highly toxic industrial cleaning solution at a Utah restaurant has deep, ulcerated burns in her upper esophagus, a family attorney said Friday.

Jan Harding, 67, remains in critical condition at the University of Utah hospital's burn unit in Salt Lake City, lawyer Paxton Guymon said.

Doctors determined the internal damage Thursday while doing an endoscopy, which involves inserting a tube with a light and camera into a person's digestive tract. She also has severe mouth burns.

"The news was very disappointing and disheartening for the family," Guymon said in a statement. "The burns were deeper and more extensive than we had hoped."

Investigators and the restaurant manager have told the Hardings that a worker mistook the cleaning product for sugar and mixed large quantities of it into the iced-tea dispenser. The cleaning product is meant for degreasing deep fryers and contains the odorless chemical lye, the active ingredient in drain cleaners.

When ingested, the chemical starts dissolving a person's insides, said Tom Richmond, professor of chemistry at the University of Utah.

South Jordan police are still investigating how it ended up in the sweet-tea container, but they think it was accidental, police Cpl. Sam Winkler said. South Jordan is a suburb of 60,000 about 15 miles south of Salt Lake City.

Harding and her husband had just arrived at the restaurant for a relaxing lunch with friends when she filled her cup with sweet tea from a self-serve beverage station. She took one sip before spitting it out and exclaiming to her husband: "I think I just drank acid."

Investigators are reviewing video footage from inside the eatery and interviewing staff. No arrests have been made.

They have determined Harding is the only victim, Winkler said. It appears she was the first to drink the tea that day, and restaurant employees disposed of it after she was burned, he said.

John Thomson, owner of the Dickey's Barbecue South Jordan franchise, said in a statement Thursday that he's praying for Harding and cooperating with investigators. His restaurant is one of 400 Dickey's around the country in the Dallas-based chain.

Guymon said he will wait for police to finish their investigation before determining what legal action to take.

The restaurant remains open after county health officials inspected the establishment and found all chemicals properly labeled and separated from food items.