Six in Family Sickened, Possibly by Mint Leaves

Authorities say six people in Gaithersburg, Maryland, became ill after eating a stew flavored with herbs that might have been covered in pesticide. Video by AP
By Steve Hendrix and Debbi Wilgoren
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, July 10, 2008

When Satnam Singh's Indian American relatives gathered for dinner Tuesday night in Gaithersburg, they shared a typical meal, including a potato stew flavored with mint.

What happened later was far from typical. Singh woke to find six members of his extended family in medical distress: nauseated, disoriented and worsening quickly.

"When I was awoken, they were already quite ill," Singh said yesterday in an interview at Shady Grove Adventist Hospital, where his wife was among six people in intensive care, all victims of what authorities described as a rare case of mass accidental poisoning. "They were hallucinating," he said. "They didn't know where they were."

Four of the six were listed in critical but stable condition yesterday. Doctors said they expect all to recover.

According to Montgomery County officials, the culprit might have been pesticide on homegrown mint leaves that a family member plucked from a front-yard garden and dropped into the meal's stew. The six, who ranged in age from 20 to 70 years, became ill after eating the stew at the townhouse in the 1000 block of Travis Lane, according to county fire and rescue spokesman Pete Piringer. The six became lethargic, and as the night wore on, they experienced a variety of symptoms, including heart palpitations, vomiting, sweating and loss of consciousness.

Six people who had not eaten the stew, including Singh, were not affected.

"It appears as though the people that liked the stew and ate more of it are a little bit worse off than the others," Piringer said.

An ambulance was summoned about 1 a.m. to the address in the Montgomery Meadows complex just off Watkins Mill Road, Piringer said. When medics realized the scale of the problem, they called for more help, including a hazardous materials crew to rule out carbon monoxide poisoning.

After interviewing family members, rescue workers looked to the food the victims had eaten. The symptoms, which match those of poisoning by organophosphate pesticide, led investigators to focus on fresh produce and the mint leaves in particular.

"The leading theory is that there may have been a pesticide on this particular plant," Piringer said. "The plant may not have been washed properly."

Blood samples from the patients, along with samples of the stew and mint leaves, were taken to a state medical laboratory yesterday afternoon. Because of the unusual nature of the analysis, it could be several days before results are available, county health officials said.

"They usually test for salmonella and E. coli and organic pathogens," said Mary Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Montgomery Department of Health and Human Services. "Testing for poisons and chemicals is not something they normally do. There are more questions than answers at this point."

Anderson said she had not seen such an intense outbreak of family poisoning in her 15-year career with the health department. Officials at Shady Grove also said it was rare to see a group gathering so devastated by simultaneous serious illnesses.

"It's very, very unusual," said Gaurov Dayal, Shady Grove's chief medical officer. "The only parallel I can think of is carbon monoxide poisoning."

Dayal said that the doctors had not confirmed the mint-leaf theory but that the cases did seem to be related to the ingestion of a poisonous plant or pesticide.

Singh said that he had no idea what had sickened his wife and other family members but that it was not unusual to cook with mint from the herb garden.

"It's just regular mint," he said.

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