SKOWHEGAN — A short circuit in the wiring of a fire suppression system at the Irving Circle K service station Sunday was the apparent cause of a plume of white powder released onto cars and people.

No one was seriously injured, but several people, including three young children, were taken to the hospital to be checked out for possible respiratory problems. Others were examined at the scene of the incident on U.S. Route 201, which is also Madison Avenue.

A cloud of white powder blasted from about 50 hoses mounted in the canopy of the stations’ gas-pumping area about 12:30 p.m.

The thick powder obscured the station from view from the road and briefly closed the busy highway to motor vehicle traffic. The cloud traveled to the Tractor Supply shopping center across the road, then dissipated.

Skowhegan Fire Chief Tom Keene said there was no fire and the release did not come as a result of human error and was not manually activated.

“It was a short circuit caused by water into the conduit,” Keene said. “It’s weather-tight stuff, but I guess over time one just loosened up, caused a short and triggered the discharge.”

Keene said the chemical was a nontoxic compound that can cause mild eye and throat irritation but is not life threatening. The chemical is called ABC powder, mostly a sodium bicarbonate, used in dry-powder fire extinguishers.

One woman was taken to the hospital by ambulance and two others went by private vehicle, all with respiratory complaints.

A spokesman at Redington-Fairview General Hospital did not return a call asking whetherif anyone had been admitted. Keene said if someone had been injured enough to be hospitalized, his department would have been notified.

A crew from Clean Harbors, of Portland, arrived at the station about 7 p.m. Sunday to conduct a cleanup of the premises.

The manager of the Skowhegan Circle K station would not comment on the incident Monday and would not give his name. A call to Circle K human resources offices in New Hampshire was not returned Monday.

“It was a freak thing,” Keene said of the incident. “It did what it was supposed to do. There just wasn’t any fire to put out.”

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

dharlow@centralmaine.com