Air of mystery at Market Basket
Toxicology reports, blood tests now indicate refrigerant gas did not cause collapse of employees
More than a week after pointing to a refrigerant gas leak as the likely culprit that caused nine Market Basket employees to be transported to area hospitals, officials now say they are unsure what caused the emergency.
After extensive investigation by the Rindge Fire Department, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the New Hampshire Division of Public Health and Human Services, officials feel fairly certain, though not positive, that something other than refrigerant gas caused three Rindge Market Basket employees to collapse and numerous others to feel dizziness, nausea, and respiratory issues in the supermarket’s storeroom on the evening of Dec. 29.
“I’m 95 percent sure it had nothing to do with the refrigerant gas,” said Rindge Fire Chief Rickard Donovan by phone on Monday.
Donovan said in an earlier phone interview on Thursday afternoon that he couldn’t pinpoint anything that indicated a cause of the emergency during the store’s annual year-end inventory in which an estimated 150 employees were in the room at the time.
“We’re baffled, but we have exhausted all avenues, all thoughts,” Donovan said. “We’ve come up with theories and researched all our theories and found nothing.”
Donovan also said that between 280 and 300 customers were in the store at the time of the event, though none were affected. Donovan wanted to assure the public that the store was not a dangerous environment, despite the mysterious cause of the emergency. “It’s undetermined, but we feel strongly that it is an isolated case. I want to assure people that the store is safe,” he said.
Market Basket operations manager David McLean issued a press release on Friday that similarly quelled any alarm. McLean wrote, “After a thorough investigation, involving Market Basket Safety Officials, the Town of Rindge Fire Department, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the New Hampshire Division of Public Health and Human Services, employee exposure to refrigerant gas or carbon monoxide has now been ruled out as the source of the issue leading to the December 29th Store evacuation event. This is based on facts gathered through medical toxicology reports, air quality testing, employee interviews, discovery of pre-existing medical conditions, and other factors. Health officials have also ruled out remaining issues, such as food contamination.
Market Basket applauds the work done by emergency responders from Rindge and surrounding towns, and State health and safety offices. Employees who sought medical evaluation have returned to work.”
The press release was sent out after a collective meeting on Thursday morning between the fire department, the store managers, OSHA, and the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services. In the meeting, numerous test results and determinations were shared, and though they didn’t reveal the answer everyone was looking for, they did help rule out certain theories.
Blood toxicology reports of employees treated at Henry Heywood Hospital in Gardner, Mass., acquired through Market Basket’s workman’s comp claims nurse, showed no signs of toxins or chemicals, such as carbon monoxide or refrigerant gas. Though one 30-pound refrigerant cylinder was found to have a leaky valve in the area, Donovan said there was no way of knowing how much of the gas could have leaked out without establishing how full the container was in the first place. Even if the cylinder had been full when it started leaking in the storeroom, it would have been a small amount of substance issuing into a very large space — 155,385 cubic feet, to be exact — according to Donovan. “[The room] is huge,” he said.
Donovan also said on Thursday that air quality and temperature monitoring printouts from the supermarket’s storeroom on Dec. 29 showed normal readings. “The ventilation was doing its job,” Donovan said. “We have continuously tested the air quality of that place,” he said, adding that nothing unusual had been found.
The refrigerating and heating systems were also checked, and nothing turned up there, either. “I can assure the public we have tested the place up and down,” Donovan said.
Though nothing appears to have been wrong with the store itself on Dec. 29, Donovan said that interviews with store employees did show that more than one person came to work feeling ill or with a headache. “There are a lot of bugs going around, a lot of viruses,” Donovan said in his Monday interview. Donovan wondered if prior sickness had anything to do with the event, but said he could not know for sure.
OSHA Area Director Rose O’Har said by phone on Monday that OSHA is still in the process of its investigation, though according to Donovan, nothing else is turning up. “Everybody’s coming up with the same conclusion,” he said.
A criminal investigation of the event was initially considered, but quickly dropped. “That was ruled out at the start,” said Donovan, indicating that Market Basket video surveillance showed no suspicious people or packages, and that all the store’s systems had been normal on Dec. 29.
In the end, there may be no answers for this case. “It isn’t adding up,” Donovan said on Thursday of the investigation results. “I’m afraid we’ll never put a finger on this.”
Rindge Market Basket Manager Bill Dube was reached by phone on Monday, but would not comment on the difficulty of not finding the cause of the incident. “It is what it is,” he said. When asked if he had received any employee complaints, Dube also declined to comment.
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