Industrial workers poisoned by the pesticide Kepone, including some who were so disabled they were unable to work, show rapid improvement after a therapy program with an experimental antidote, researchers at the Medical College of Virginia reported yesterday.
Dr. Philip S. Guzelian, the chief researcher, said the drug cholestyra-mine, which has otherwise been used to reduce cholesterol levels in the bloods, resulted in a seven-fold increase in the elimination of Kepone from 22 workers who were treated.
After the program was completed, Guzelian said, only eight workers had detectable traces of Kepone in them and their symptoms, where they existed at all, were "mild."
The workers had been poisoned while helping manufacture Kepone at the Life Science products Co. plant in Hopewell, 30 miles southeast of Richmond. After documentation of worker illnesses and widespread contamination by Kepone discharged from the plant into the James River, the state ordered the facility closed in 1975.
In the aftermath, about 75 workers were found to be suffering from a variety of Kepone-caused symptoms, including tremors, stuttering, anxiety, temporary memory loss, enlarged livers and sterility.
Because their bodies eliminated Kepone slowly, the workers continued to suffer sysmptoms long after exposure to the powerful chemical, which had been used to exterminate ants and roaches.
With money provided by the National Institutes of Health and the Allied Chemical Corp., the previous owner of the now-defunct Hopewell plant, the Guzelian team began looking for a chemical that would speed up the body's elimination of Kepone.
"It was a difficult problem at the outset," Guzelian told a press conference at the medical college. "There was little information in the literature on the metabolism of Kepone on animals, and none on metabolism in humans.There was no method to measure Kepone, no lab to carry out studies, or funds."
Through NIH's Division of Research Resources, a "clinical research center" was created at MCV. To permit close monitoring of the 22 poisoned workers, the research center had its own lab (for fast results on the numberous tests) and diet kitchen (important in analyzing metabolism).
After being given initial doses of cholestsryramine, many of the workers experienced a rapid increase in elimination of Kepone. The pattern, with an attendant decrease in symptoms, continued for half a year after the therapy was completed.
As explained by Guzelian, the drug tended to trap Kepone in the intestine and thus prevent the pesticide from returning to the bloodstream and re-entering the liver. By breaking this cycle, the drug was able to increase the elimination of Kepone with other bodily wastes.
Guzelian said the results are doubly significant because cholestyramine "can possibly have the same effect of detoxifying the body of other environmental toxins," such as DDT, dieldrin and so-called organochlorine pesticides, which are not only potent but persistent in their harmful effects.
While about 75 workers were polsoned, Guzelian said only 22 - the most serious cases - were studied because "we've had very limited financial resources."