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Cause of ‘mystery’ illness undetermined at Rindge Market Basket

Union Leader Correspondent

January 12. 2014 6:39PM

RINDGE — The sudden illness that hospitalized nine Market Basket employees and triggered the evacuation of the store Dec. 29 remains a mystery.

“All of our theories came to a dead end as to what could have happened,” said Rickard J. Donovan, Rindge fire chief and director of Public and Life Safety, on Friday. “We can’t put our finger on anything.”

A leaking valve on a refrigeration unit was initially thought to have caused the illnesses that started during a staff meeting in a storage area on Dec. 29.

But an investigation has been inconclusive, Donovan said. There is no evidence it was a refrigerant gas leak, based on air tests of the building and blood tests of employees who were sent to Henry Heywood Hospital in Gardner, Mass., where a workers’ compensation nurse ran blood tests.

Employees that were taken to Monadnock Community Hospital in Peterborough did not have blood tests performed.

Additionally, fewer than 10 percent of 150 people fell ill, Donovan said. And no customers were affected.

“It doesn’t add up for that type of gas to get into that area and only affect a few people,” Donovan said, but added, “I can’t 100 percent say that it wasn’t refrigerant gas.”

The incident occurred as Market Basket employees were preparing to close the store at 7 p.m. and were also gathering for a 6 p.m. meeting about the annual inventory. About 150 employees were in the store at the time.

They had been in this stock area of the store about eight to 10 minutes when the first person passed out.

When firefighters arrived at 6:27 p.m., nine people has succumbed. Firefighters ordered the evacuation of the entire complex and began triage of occupants and declared the event a mass casualty incident, calling in mutual aid companies to the scene.

The leak was classified as under control at 9:51 p.m., and the store reopened as usual the next day.

Patients were taken to Monadnock Community Hospital in Peterborough, Cheshire Medical Center in Keene and Henry Heywood Hospital in Gardner, Mass.

Two patients were sent to UMass Medical Center in Worcester, Mass., for observation but were later released.

Symptoms included dizziness, nausea and some had respiratory irritation.

Donovan said Market Basket air-ventilation systems were tested and found to be in perfect working order.

“There is no evidence that points back to Market Basket at this point,” Donovan said.

“It’s one of those things that we might never find out why or what happened.”

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