Investigators declined to describe the “item” containing arsenic.

NEW SWEDEN (AP) – Investigators located a container that held arsenic in the Gustaf Adolph Lutheran Church on Wednesday as a funeral was held for a church elder who died when an illness swept through the congregation.

State Police Lt. Dennis Appleton, who is leading the investigation, declined to describe the “item” that contained arsenic.

The death of one church member and the illness of a dozen others in this tiny town in northern Maine continued to be described as suspicious as investigators tried to determine the source of the arsenic.

“We have not identified how the arsenic arrived in the building,” Appleton told reporters outside the church.

As the investigation continued, the Rev. Jim Morgan remembered Walter Morrill at his funeral in Caribou as “a ray of sunshine.”

Morrill, 78, lived next to the church and over the years had done work on its property, including groundskeeping and maintenance.

He had been a great source of support for fellow worshippers who are now feeling a combination of anxiety, fear, grief and pain, Morgan said.

“I compare it to a lightning bolt out of the blue,” he said Wednesday at the crowded Lancaster Morgan Funeral Home.

Many church members attended the funeral, but some were still hospitalized. At least three of them, Dale Anderson, Herman Fisher and Ralph Ostlund, remained in critical condition at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor on Wednesday.

Seven of those who attended Sunday’s reception were released from a hospital but returned to receive treatment for arsenic poisoning.

A complicating factor in the investigation was that so many church members were sick and unable to be interviewed, Appleton said.

The victims on Sunday shared beverages along with sweets and sandwiches left over from a church bake sale the day before. Several church members reported that those who drank the coffee reported that it tasted funny.

Police have not linked the illnesses to the coffee, but all of those who got sick had tried the coffee, Appleton said.

He ruled out the coffee’s sugar supply as the arsenic source and said that the church’s well was not contaminated, either.

Appleton also said detectives were checking into the possibility that soap, cleansers and other materials in the church may have been used to clean coffee containers. But he said that so far investigators have not found any evidence supporting the theory that someone accidentally used a substance containing arsenic to clean a coffee urn.

A professor at New York University said it takes more arsenic to kill someone than is normally found in household cleaning chemicals.

Besides, arsenic is usually found in poisons, not cleaning supplies. “That’s a lot of arsenic to kill someone,” said Dr. Toby Rossman, a professor of environmental medicine. “It’s not the easiest way to kill someone.”

A resident of New Sweden, which was settled by Swedish immigrants in the late 1800s, dismissed the idea of intentional poisoning.

“When you look at the people who got sick, there’s no way you could fathom anyone having anything against them,” said Sara Anderson, who owns the Northstar Variety store in town. “There’s no Hatfields and McCoys.”

The most common sign of acute arsenic exposure is sudden onset of nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, low blood pressure and headache.

The antidote for poisoning by arsenic or other heavy metals involves agents that are introduced into the body that bond together the arsenic and are eliminated through urine.

The treatments could last a few days or a week or two, depending on the severity of the exposure.



On the Net:

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

AP-ES-04-30-03 1545EDT



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