Pfiesteria effects linger 'I know I'm not what I once was,' says state investigator

March 04, 1998|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

Are the effects of Pfiesteria toxins on people really no longer-lasting than a cold or flu, as some skeptics contend?

Medical researchers say it will be years before they know the answer, if they ever do.

But Yvonne Lawson of Crisfield says she knows from experience that Pfiesteria can cause lingering, life-changing illness. More than five months after she was stricken, Lawson said, she still has breathing and memory problems.

As recently as yesterday, during a daylong Maryland Senate debate on Gov. Parris N. Glendening's bill to control Pfiesteria, state Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, a Lower Shore Republican, insisted that Pfiesteria "is not a serious health issue."

Stoltzfus and other opponents of the governor's plan have compared the health effects of exposure to the toxic microorganism to a bad cold or flu.

Doubters' comments infuriate Grant Lawson, an 11th-generation waterman and Yvonne Lawson's husband of 38 years.

"I would like to invite them to go out there in the middle of it," he said. "You'll get on the fighting side of me real quick if you don't acknowledge that this is serious."

Yvonne Lawson, 56, was a fish kill investigator for the Maryland Department of the Environment for 20 years. She was assigned to take water samples on King's Creek, a tributary of the Manokin River where schools of distressed, lesioned fish began surfacing Sept. 7.

She expected a routine assignment, but "this was out of the ordinary. There were sick fish surfacing continually the whole time you were in amongst them, and they just kept coming."

Wearing rubber gloves and no other protective gear, Lawson spent four days working at the site of what later was confirmed as a toxic outbreak of Pfiesteria piscicida.

"She went down to the river one day healthy and came back sick," said Grant Lawson, 62.

Yvonne Lawson said her thoughts became a jumble and her memory went blank that first day. She and her family initially wrote it off to exhaustion from 14-hour workdays. Then she took a day off and realized, "I was in trouble.

"I had a grocery list and I went to the grocery store three times without finishing the list," she said. "I'd go home, take my groceries out and put them away, and then reach for something and realize I didn't have it. After the third trip, I gave up."

Lawson, who had never had asthma, was having trouble breathing. She was treated at Duke University and examined by the Maryland medical team that assessed suspected Pfiesteria cases.

In both examinations, Lawson said, "I did very poorly on neurocognitive testing and on memory. I couldn't add. I couldn't subtract. I was tired, always tired. And I was on five different inhalers, four times a day."

For the next two months, her breathing and memory gradually improved. Researchers from the Maryland medical team did follow-up tests in November and told Lawson her scores on standard neurological tests were "within the norm," she said.

"But there's a broad span in the norm," Lawson said. "I know I'm not what I once was.

"When I get tired I zonk. You can talk to me, and I know you're talking to me, but I don't know what you're saying."

Lawson said she still regularly uses two different asthma inhalers and tires quickly doing routine tasks such as housework. "If I exert myself I end up wheezing," she said.

State medical experts refuse to talk about individual cases, noting research subjects' right to privacy. But Diane Matuszak, associate director of the state's community and public health administration, said the medical team tested 12 of the 13 people who had showed Pfiesteria symptoms earlier. In the new tests, all but two of them "had results that were now in the normal range," she said.

"The problem with that is that we don't know where they started," Matuszak said.

Medical researchers hope a new study of 100 or more Maryland watermen will solve that problem. The study, which could begin this month, would compare the watermen -- some of whom may already have been exposed to Pfiesteria, and some of whom may be exposed in the future -- with a matching group of people who do not work on the water. Both groups would begin with tests, so that researchers can carefully measure changes.

But there's no guarantee that the five-year study will produce solid answers. That poses a dilemma for state agencies such as the Departments of the Environment and Natural Resources, which must decide how to deal with employees who become ill after working amid Pfiesteria outbreaks.

At least six state workers reported being stricken with Pfiesteria symptoms last year, according to spokesmen for the two agencies. All are back at work, said John Surrick of the Department of Natural Resources and Susan Woods of the Department of the Environment.

Until the effects of Pfiesteria are better understood, the state plans to be generous with sick leave for workers who are exposed to it on the job, and to move workers who have been exposed into different jobs if necessary, Surrick said.

Yvonne Lawson said she has been moved to new duties, testing water quality instead of investigating fish kills, to minimize the risk that she'll be exposed again. "The department has been wonderful to me," she said.

The Lawsons spend a lot of time in Baltimore and Annapolis, attending meetings on Pfiesteria. Sometimes on the long drive back to Crisfield, "She's like a zombie sitting there beside me," Grant Lawson said. "She never used to be like that. She was always just as sharp as can be."

The Lawsons say they've met several North Carolina fishermen with problems similar to Yvonne's. And they know of Maryland watermen and state workers who were in or near Pfiesteria outbreaks and have health problems, but refused to be tested.

"They don't want to know," Yvonne Lawson said. "They can't do anything about it anyway."

Pub Date: 3/04/98

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