Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Unwashed mint leaves in stew likely made six sick in Gaithersburg

Pesticides could have affected dinner ingredients pulled from family garden

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A gathering of family and friends ended early Wednesday with six people in the hospital after eating stew that included mint leaves that could have been tainted with pesticide, according to a Montgomery County Fire and Rescue spokesman.

The episode sends a warning about washing fruits and vegetables and keeping kitchen surfaces clean, said spokesman Pete Piringer. The sick showed signs of organophosphate poisoning, which often follows a poisonous chemical ingestion, he said.

‘‘We didn't initially know why they were sick, but we traced it down to Indian Potato Stew,” Piringer said. ‘‘And it appears that the more stew the people ate and the more they liked it, the sicker they were.”

Five of the six hospitalized were admitted to intensive care in varying states of consciousness.

‘‘All of the patients are in stable condition and are improving,” according to a statement from Shady Grove Adventist Hospital in Rockville. ‘‘Because of the unknown cause and complex nature of this case, our medical team is working closely with poison control, county and state health officials to manage the situation.”

About 12 people from 20 to 70 years old were gathered for a family and friends dinner at Montgomery Meadows Townhouses in the 1000 block of Travis Lane, Piringer said. An elderly woman, said to be the resident family grandmother, cooked a stew with herbs from a garden in front of the townhouse. About six of the guests ate it and then experienced symptoms of serious illness, including hallucinations, nausea, vomiting, heart palpitations and difficulty breathing.

County fire and rescue officials arrived at the scene at about 1 a.m. Wednesday, Piringer said. When medics arrived, they called for additional help, including county poison control and a hazardous materials team to rule out carbon monoxide or other environmental pollution, Piringer said.

Then they found out what everyone had for dinner.

‘‘Medics had the presence of mind to take some samples of the stew to the hospital,” Piringer said. Hospital authorities and the county Department of Health and Human Services will complete the investigation, he said.

‘‘Right now, there are still more questions than answers,” said HHS spokeswoman Mary Anderson. ‘‘We have not confirmed anything about hallucinogenics or poisons -- I think our folks are reluctant to say anything like this because they haven't seen anything yet.”

The county's disease control program is looking into the matter, Anderson said. She did not know whether food or other samples had been forwarded to the state health department for testing.