The investigation into illnesses at an Aroostook County church continues.

AUGUSTA – Arsenic is a probable cause of an outbreak of illnesses after a church gathering in New Sweden, Maine health officials said Tuesday as an autopsy on a 78-year-old man who died after the gathering got under way.

Gov. John Baldacci, appearing in the State House with top state law enforcement and health officials, sought to reassure people living in the northern Maine area where the illnesses occurred and said a coordinated effort to pinpoint the cause was under way.

Health Director Dora Anne Mills said a preliminary analysis identified arsenic as “a probable causative agent” in Sunday’s outbreak following the service at the Gustaf Adolph Lutheran Church, which was attended by 27 people.

Walter Morrill of New Sweden died, five people remained hospitalized Tuesday and seven others were discharged from the hospital, Mills said. Those who were discharged were readmitted Tuesday for re-evaluation for arsenic.

Mills stressed that there is no evidence so far of ongoing exposures causing new illnesses in New Sweden or elsewhere.

“We do not currently have other reports of arsenic toxicity elsewhere,” Mills said.

The most common sign of acute arsenic exposure is sudden onset of nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, low blood pressure and headache, Mills said. Arsenic often also has a bitter taste, she said.

She referred people who have health concerns following the incident to see their doctor and to refer to a Web site containing more information about the toxic metal, which sometimes occurs naturally in well water and elsewhere in the ground. Arsenic can be found in old pesticides and other products.

The Public Safety Department sent officers and technicians to the scene to gather information as part of the investigation, Commissioner Michael Cantara said.

Responding to a reporter’s question, the officials said there was no further advisory to well owners in the area and no large-scale testing of private wells was expected.

Statewide, about two-thirds of Mainers get their water from wells, and Maine water has a higher natural arsenic content than that of other states, Mills said.



On the Net:

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry: www.atsdr.cdc.gov/tfacts2.html

AP-ES-04-29-03 1252EDT



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