Blood tests may hold answers

OSHA opens investigation; state, town officials await toxicology report to confirm Market Basket gas leak

Rindge Fire Department and state officials continue to investigate what caused three Market Basket employees to pass out and several more to experience dizziness, nausea and respiratory issues Sunday evening. They hope toxicology reports will give them some answers as to the reason for the incident. Refrigerant gas is still the suspected culprit.

At the scene Sunday evening, Rindge Fire Capt. Dale Smith declared the event a Mass Casualty Incident, because the number of patients exceeded the capacity of emergency equipment and personnel at the scene. Four other area emergency crews were called to help transport eight store employees to local hospitals, and another employee was brought by a personal vehicle. Patients were brought to and treated at Monadnock Community Hospital in Peterborough, Cheshire Medical Center in Keene and Henry Heywood Hospital in Garnder, Mass. Heywood Hospital received an additional six walk-in patients as a result of the emergency, and two patients were sent to UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester for observation.

All of the patients have since been released in stable condition, according to a Rindge Fire Department press release.

According to the Rindge Fire Department, no definitive reason for the incident has been determined so far.

“Nothing really fits,” said Fire Inspector Casey Burrage in a phone interview Tuesday. The investigation the Fire Department, Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the State Health Department are conducting has not proved or disproved anything.

OSHA Area Director Rose O’Har was reached by phone Tuesday, but could not comment on the investigation itself. “We have an open and ongoing investigation,” she said. “We’re working with everyone.”

Market Basket corporate officials did not return phone calls by press time Tuesday.

Rindge Fire Chief Rickard Donovan said over the phone Tuesday that he and other officials are waiting on toxicology reports from blood samples taken from Market Basket employees who were brought to Heywood Hospital with symptoms Sunday evening. Donovan said all he needs is confirmation that refrigerant gas was found in those patients’ bloodstreams to determine the cause of the emergency event.

“We’re all sitting and waiting for the same thing,” Donovan said. “I’m hoping [the results are] going to give us some answers.”

The confusion, said Donovan, arises from the fact that, though the symptoms displayed by Market Basket employees indicate refrigerant gas poisoning, they also mimic exposure to carbon monoxide. As many as six air quality meters have been employed in the investigation of Market Basket’s storeroom, where the employees passed out on Sunday. According to Donovan, the only carbon monoxide present in the building was a small amount in the neck of a bottle-container.

“Is that enough to affect 15 out of 150 people?” he asked.

Donovan said he worries the store will be shut down as a result of the event without a determined reason for Sunday’s emergency, though health officials have ruled out remaining issues, such as food contamination. “There’s no reason whatsoever to close the store,” he said.

Donovan added that Market Basket is doing what it can to determine the source of the issue. “They’ve been extremely cooperative,” he said.

In search for more information, the store managers will meet with the Fire Department, OSHA, the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services and the store’s vendors this morning to discuss, not only the Sunday incident, but also future procedures and plans to prevent something similar from happening again.

With everyone working together, Donovan expects to find out more soon. “We’re hopefully going to get more answers Thursday morning,” he said. Donovan also said that he and Rindge Market Basket store Manager Bill Dube will issue a press release after the meeting, in an effort to share with customers and the public what exactly is going on.

On Monday when the store reopened, no notices had been posted about the incident inside or outside the store.

Elodie can be reached by phone at 924-7172 ext. 228, or by email at ereed@ledgertranscript.com. Elodie is also on Twitter @elodie_reed.

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