Fairfax County police yesterday repeated that they have "grave reservations" about claims made by a Reston woman who said she bought a contaminated bottle of Visine A.C. eye drops at a Drug Fair in Herndon on Friday, and damaged an eye when she used them.
But the woman, Debra Hill, 30, reiterated that her left eye was injured by using drops that contained hydrochloric acid, and said the police were treating her unfairly.
Late Saturday, Fairfax police chief Col. Carroll Buracker said at a press conference, "We're concerned that people can make these kinds of complaints, the media responds . . . and innocent people and innocent companies get hurt." He said then that "If I had a problem with my eyes, I would not hesitate to use Visine."
Yesterday a police spokesman echoed Buracker's reservations about the woman's report and said that police "understand" that Hill had had a previous dispute with Drug Fair. Police also said that Hill refused to take a lie detector test. She, however, says she would be willing to take such a test under certain conditions, one of which is she be allowed to take it in her home.
Police said yesterday they have found no signs that other Visine bottles in area stores have been tampered with, and a spokesman for the manufacturer of the eye drops, Pfizer Inc., said, "We are confident, 100 percent confident, that it didn't involve the plant."
In the confusion surrounding the incident, responses by area stores have varied from Drug Fair's removal of all Visine eye drops from stores within a 15-mile radius of Herndon to Dart Drug's decision to leave its shelves undisturbed because it had no bottles from the suspect lot-- number 122. Most companies plan to review their responses today.
The Food and Drug Administration yesterday repeated its general recommendation that consumers buy only health products with intact clear plastic safety seals, but it did not issue a specific warning about Visine or eyedrops of any kind. "We would do so if the police did not seem to think that this is a very isolated incident," said William Grigg, a spokesman for the FDA.
Hill said she bought the eyedrops on Friday but does not remember if the bottle had a safety seal.
The drops "burned like fire" when she used them, she said.
Doctors at the ACCESS Clinic in Reston, where Hill went for treatment late Friday, found a pH acidity level of 4.5 in the solution left in the bottle, a reading that Dr. Toby Litovitz, director of the National Capital Poison Center, called "not very strong."
Dr. Leonard Barmak, who treated Hill for acute chemical conjunctivitis and traumatic iritis yesterday morning, said he believes that Hill's eye condition was the consequence of a chemical burn.
"What I saw this morning was an inflamed eye," he said.
"On the basis of what we know I would say it's a consequence of the acid." He said he thought there would be no permanent damage, barring infection.
Yesterday, as Fairfax police said their investigation is continuing, Hill took issue with police statements Saturday that she had filed an "insurance claim" against Drug Fair over the eyedrops.
"I almost blew up when the chief of police went on television and said what he said last night," Hill said yesterday. "He said I'd filed suit against the company when he hadn't even talked to my attorney."
Hill's lawyer, David Hill (no relation), confirmed that no suit had been filed against either Drug Fair or the manufacturers of Visine. "She Debra Hill did not even discuss that possibility with me," he said. "And I haven't received a single call from the police on this."
Debra Hill said that she had a minor dispute over a year ago with the same Drug Fair store from which she purchased the bottle of Visine Friday. She says that she bought a roll of "defective" camera film, and made an unsuccessful attempt to have the store "do something about it."
The family, according to Hill, has had a series of medical misfortunes: she had two blood clots in the brain and is recovering from pneumonia; her husband, Robert, 32, a former carpetlayer, is temporarily disabled since suffering a hand injury in 1979. Living off his disability insurance, the Hills, who have two daughters, aged 7 and 9, barely make ends meet, she said.
She added that in 1979 or '80, she slipped on some water in a Safeway supermarket and injured her back. Her lawyer says Safeway ultimately agreed out of court to pay $1,600, most of which went to cover the lawyer's fee and Debra Hill's medical expenses.
The confusion over the Visine incident has been mirrored in the responses of area stores.
For example, Sherwin-Williams, the parent company of the Drug Fair chain, ordered all bottles of Visine A.C. removed from stores in a 10 to 15 mile radius of the Herndon store.
Pharmacies in Giant Food stores reported they had taken the Visine A.C. drops off their shelves. More than 200 People's stores in the Washington area, and in North Carolina and Ohio, were told to take the product from the suspect lot off the shelves until further notice.
Ben S. Kovalsky, vice-president for merchandising for the Dart Drug chain, said his company left the eyedrops in the stores after checking that they had no Visine A.C. from the lot Hill's bottle came from.
At the same time he reflected the growing frustration of merchants faced with a rash of product tampering since seven people died recently from cyanide-filled Tylenol capsules.
"I'm not sure what is to be done," he said. "It doesn't seem to be a manufacturing problem. You'd almost have to take everything off the shelf to prevent all chance of contamination . To me it's just a terrible thing."