By HEATHER NELLIS
Amsterdam police say an agricultural pesticide used for controlling bugs on crops, mosquitoes in large areas, and in head lice products was the substance that caused contamination at St. Mary’s Hospital emergency department Monday.
The police department, firefighters and GAVAC responded to a 911 call on McCleary Avenue at 2 p.m. Monday, where responders determined a female victim ingested an unknown substance, now identified as malathion, and required immediate medical attention.
She was transported to St. Mary’s Guy Park Avenue emergency department, and the substance was apparently brought in tow. It caused an overwhelming, foul odor that permeated the department, described by one official as smelling like dog excrement; another as “cat urine times infinity.”
The department was subsequently cordoned as part of procedure while the Montgomery County HazMat team worked to determine the substance.
The material was identified as malathion at roughly 10 p.m. Monday, and the emergency department was re-opened early this morning after specialized cleaning crews sanitized it.
“Late [Monday] night, we were able to determine that a major component of the mixed substance was an insecticide. It was a very powerful mixture, hence the strong odor,” said hospital Spokeswoman Jerri Cortese.
That’s good news in the clinical sense, Cortese says.
“It’s not an airborne substance,” Cortese said. “In order for it to have impact, it would have to be ingested, or come in contact with skin, and this patient did not have contact with any other patients.”
Montgomery County Emergency Management interim Director Rick Sager said officials captured a 12-ounce, unlabeled container that was secured. He affirmed Cortese’s assurances.
“There is absolutely no concern for the general public,” Sager said.
Upon the HazMat team’s initial response, members entered the department wearing full body suits as a precaution, but thereafter, other officials entered and exited the department wearing just medical masks.
It didn’t take long for officials to determine the low-level of risk in the emergency department, but they had to brave Monday night’s cold and wait for equipment to identify it.
The county’s identification equipment was not able to pinpoint it, said Sager, so more sophisticated equipment valued at $68,000 was brought in from the Albany International Airport. It arrived at about 9 p.m.
“The only reason we have the ER shut down, is because there was some contamination in there with this product, and we don’t know what the product is yet, so we can’t clean it up,” Sager said before the supplemental equipment arrived. “We can’t clean it with bleach or anything else, because we don’t want to create some kind of chemical reaction.”
The hospital was not evacuated during any point of the incident, and operations have continued throughout the ordeal, but ambulances were diverted to other hospitals when appropriate. The department continued to treat emergency cases in a pair of alternate sites within the hospital.
Cortese said the hospital brought in a specialized cleaning crew to sanitize the department, particularly the room in which the patient was treated. HazMat team members are still on-site today, which Cortese said is standard given the situation.
The hospital is accepting ambulances again, and as early as 4 a.m., staff started moving patients back into the emergency room from the alternate sites within the hospital.
“We still have members on site doing extraordinary cleaning, but other than that, we are business as usual,” Cortese said.
Hospital staff members are also safe, Sager said.
“We monitored emergency room workers last night, and I’m sure they will continue to monitor them. They had no symptoms last night. When we left, they were fine,” Sager said.
“Other than the fact an unlabeled container took us a tremendous amount of time, from my standpoint, HazMat did a great job working with the hospital. Everything went according to plan,” Sager said.
The city’s firefighters and police officers, as well as GAVAC personnel, also responded to the scene, and remained for the duration of events.
Sager said the team remained on the scene until roughly midnight.
Cortese on Monday praised the cooperation of hospital staff, as many stayed during an evening shift change to provide double staff coverage during the ordeal.
Cortese would not comment on an incident witnessed by a reporter in which a male patient was escorted into one of the alternative emergency sites Monday night, reportedly suffering from the same symptoms as the woman. Both were reportedly at the same residence.
“I can’t,” she said. “We’re walking a fine line between giving information, and being reassuring without crossing patient confidentiality lines.”
Amsterdam police are not conducting a criminal investigation into the
incident, and there are no charges pending, according to a release.