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Investigators seek cause of ill workers

MONTICELLO — Two U.S. Postal Service employees remained underobservation at Lawrence County Hospital Saturday night afterbreathing in an unknown substance Thursday morning. Two otherPostal Service employees have been released.

Three hospital workers also complained of illness and were senthome for the day, according to Mayor David Nichols.

Although the nature of the substance is still unknown, the FBI,Mississippi Emergency Management Agency and State Health Departmenthave all ruled out anthrax as a source of the illness. The source,however, is still under investigation.

“They believe it to be an incidental chemical and not somethingintentionally done,” said Sheriff Joel Thames.

Nichols said the investigation is focusing on a mailbagcontaining The Baptist Record. The employees reported smelling anoxious odor and feeling ill when a certain mailbag was opened, hesaid. Investigators believe the source may be the ink used in thenewsletters, but have not limited their investigation to themailbag, Nichols said.

“The printing company of the newsletter has been contacted,” themayor said. “A sample of the ink and paper has been obtained and isat the lab being tested.”

The incident began at approximately 7:30 a.m. Thursday whenthree of the employees “suddenly became violently sick,” saidNichols.

The two women and one man were taken to the office of Dr.Brantley Pace complaining of “an overwhelming odor and pungentmaterial” they had apparently breathed in while working, Nicholssaid.

“All three patients had lacrimation, nasal congestion,rhinorrhea, shortness of breath, nausea and intense severeheadaches, but no vomiting,” Pace said. “When they walked into myoffice they were wobbly and appeared to have trouble standing. Whenthey would sit down, they stated they felt better sitting up ratherthan lying down.”

All three workers were transferred to the hospital for furtherobservation and tests. Since then, Nichols said, Pace has alsoruled out insecticide through toxicology tests.

A fourth person, who works for Harrigill Trucking, which isunder contract to the Postal Service to deliver bulk mail, becameill Friday morning.

“He passed out while delivering mail to the Sontag Post Office,”Nichols said.

The man later told investigators he had delivered bulk mail toMonticello Thursday and felt ill, but continued to work, Nicholssaid. Friday he was overcome by the illness while at the Sontagoffice.

The Department of Environmental Quality took swipes at the postoffice Friday of the truck he was delivering in, but failed todiscover a source. He had been driving a different truck Thursday.Further tests on both trucks have been made.

The results of all tests conducted Thursday and Friday will notbe available for 5-7 days, Nichols said.

Anthrax has been ruled out for several reasons, Nichols said.The conditions of the illness rule out anthrax because the agent isodorless and all four postal employees complained of a noxiousodor, he said. Also, the transmittal of the source of the illnessto three hospital workers eliminates anthrax as a cause because theagent is not contagious.

“Three hospital workers who worked on the employees also becamemildly sick,” Nichols said. “They were treated and sent home forthe day.”

The mayor said there is no reason for people to avoid using thepost offices.

“The post office is safe,” he said. “DEQ has taken air samplesat the Monticello Post Office and the surrounding areas and foundno toxins.”

Police Chief Willard Griffin had closed the Monticello PostOffice briefly Thursday until receiving word from the PostalService in Jackson to reopen it later that day. While it wasclosed, Griffin and Fireman Hugh Summers searched the facility forany type of gas leak or burned insulation or wiring and foundnothing, Nichols said.

“I would like to take this opportunity to urge all citizens,business owners and governmental agencies that if you noticeanything out of the ordinary, whether it is an odor, unidentifiedsubstance or a suspicious looking person, to leave the areaimmediately and notify your local law enforcement agencies,” themayor said. “With all that is going on in the world today it isbetter to err on the side of caution.”

Nichols said he would also like to thank Sens. Thad Cochran’sand Trent Lott’s offices for their assistance in moving theinvestigation forward by mobilizing the different agencies involvedand coordinating their activities with the local authorities.