SALT LAKE CITY — A woman drank sweet tea containing a toxic cleaning chemical, severely burning her mouth and throat, at a Utah restaurant after an employee mistook the substance for sugar and mixed it into a dispenser, the woman's attorney said Thursday.
Jan Harding, 67, is in critical condition at a Salt Lake City hospital's burn unit, unable to talk and fighting for her life, lawyer Paxton Guymon said.
The restaurant manager and investigators have told the woman's family that the worker accidentally put large quantities of a product containing lye into the iced-tea dispenser at Dickey's Barbecue Pit in South Jordan, he said. The chemical is common at restaurants and used to degrease deep fryers.
Harding and her husband had just arrived at the restaurant after church Sunday when she took a sip of the tea and exclaimed to her husband: "I think I just drank acid."
Jim Harding rushed his wife to a nearby hospital. She was then flown to the University of Utah hospital, where she remained Thursday, Guymon said. Harding's husband and their three adult children were by her side, praying for her recovery.
The family declined to comment through Guymon, who spoke on their behalf.
"It's disturbing that this kind of toxic, poisonous material would be in the food prep area and somehow find its way into the iced tea vat," Guymon said. "I don't know how something like that can happen."
South Jordan Police are still investigating how the chemical ended up in the jug of sweet tea, but they think it was accidental, South Jordan Police Cpl. Sam Winkler said. Investigators are reviewing video footage from inside the restaurant and interviewing staff who worked that day and in the days leading up to the incident.
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 dumped it out after she was burned, he said.
The chemical comes in both liquid and powder form. The one the worker added was a powder, Guymon said.
He added he will wait for the police investigation to finish before determining what legal action to take.
John Thomson, owner of the Dickey's Barbecue franchise in South Jordan, said in a statement Thursday that he's praying for Jan Harding and cooperating with investigators. He refrained from commenting on the specifics out of respect for the Hardings. His restaurant is one of 400 Dickey's around the country in the Dallas-based chain.
South Jordan is a suburb of 60,000 about 15 miles south of Salt Lake City.
The restaurant has remained open, said Jeff Oaks, Food Protection Bureau Manager at the Salt Lake County Health Department. His office inspected the establishment Monday and found all chemicals properly labeled and separated from food items.
The health department is awaiting results of the criminal investigation to determine if it needs to issue any violations. It's unlikely the restaurant would be fined or shut down, Oaks said. The department focuses on education and prevention over punitive measures, he said.
Health officials aren't aware of anything like this every happening in Salt Lake County before this incident. Oaks said restaurant-goers don't need to be worried.
"I believe this to be an isolated incident," he said.