Illness strikes in city plant Legionnaires' disease is suspected in Poly-Seal outbreak

250 laid off during porbe

One employee dies, eight others fall ill

state is investigating

October 07, 1998|By Shanon D. Murray | Shanon D. Murray,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Dennis O'Brien contributed to this article.

One worker at a Southeast Baltimore plant has died of suspected Legionnaires' disease and eight others have developed possibly related respiratory illnesses, forcing the company to shut down more than a third of its plant while the state health department investigates the outbreak.

Poly-Seal Corp., a maker of plastic caps and seals, has laid off about 250 workers -- roughly half its work force -- while the plant is partly closed during the investigation.

It could take a "couple of weeks" for the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to investigate, health and company officials said yesterday at a news conference at the plant in the Holabird Industrial Park.

Health officials will try to confirm that the illnesses are Legionnaires' disease and whether there is an environmental hazard at the plant, said Diane Dwyer, chief epidemiologist for the state health department.

Officials will also check to see if there are any other possibly related cases of respiratory illnesses among the plant's 510 workers, she said.

The company learned of the illnesses Sept. 13 and immediately contacted the state health department and Poly-Seal's occupational health consultant at Johns Hopkins University, said Robert Weilminster, the company's vice president of finance and administration.

"Based on their investigation, they informed us late Monday night they could not rule out that the cause of illness could be from the area of the plant the associates worked in," he said.

"We are confident that we have adhered to all appropriate codes and regulations and will continue to work closely with health care experts," Weilminster said.

Until the cause is determined, he said, officials will shut down 90,000 square feet of the 240,000-square-foot plant and will lay off most of the 250 employees who work in that section of the building.

The rest of the employees can opt for voluntary layoffs if they believe safety risks remain, Weilminster said.

While the incident is being investigated, Weilminster said he expects the plant's injection molding, lining and assembly operations to remain idle.

Poly-Seal produces plastic caps and seals for products such as shampoo, soda, toothpaste and bleach.

With more than half of its work force laid off, and an unknown number considering staying home, the company cannot properly function, Weilminster said.

Some come to work

Many workers showed up for their shifts at 3: 30 p.m. yesterday. Some were there to work, others were there to get information to help them decide whether they should stay.

"We all need a job and this is a nice company, but I prefer to wait before I go back to work," said Gloria Keefer, a seven-year veteran who is a relief operator.

Pat Edgar, a warehouse worker for 12 years, said if she wasn't sick with the flu, she would work.

"If they say they have it contained, I believe them. Otherwise, managers wouldn't be here," she said.

Legionnaires' disease, or legionellosis, is a bacterial disease that can cause sickness ranging from mild respiratory illness to severe pneumonia that can lead to death, according to the state health department. The disease is treated with antibiotics.

The bacteria can be found in water environments such as air-conditioning cooling towers, hot and cold water taps and showers, humidifiers, whirlpool spas and in creeks and ponds.

Spread by droplets

The bacteria is spread by breathing in small droplets of water put in the air from the water sources. The disease does not appear to be spread from person to person, state health officials said.

Poly-Seal advised employees late last night to stop drinking tap water from the building, workers said yesterday.

The deceased worker, who passed away Thursday, has been identified by other Poly-Seal employees as Jennelle Fisher, 51, a quality assurance inspector for the company who lived in the Rosedale section of Baltimore County. Funeral services for her were last night.

Eight other Poly-Seal employees have developed respiratory symptoms, Dwyer said. The sick employees all worked in the now closed section of the plant with Fisher.

Of those, five developed pneumonia, and three of them were hospitalized. The workers have all been released from the hospital, she said. The company would not release the names of the eight workers.

Dr. Lewis J. Rubin, chief of pulmonary and critical care medicine at the University of Maryland Medical System, said that Legionnaires' disease is difficult to diagnose because the bacteria that cause it don't survive well outside the human body.

"Legionnaires' is difficult to document. It's difficult to confirm," he said.

Treat with antibiotics

Rubin said the way to protect patients with pneumonia who may have Legionnaires' disease is to handle them as if they had the disease and treat them with erythromycin, a common antibiotic that should be administered intravenously in large doses.

"It's not a common cause of pneumonia, but it's not outrageously rare," he said.

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