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Virginia Produce incident cause still unknown

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Event sent 76 people to hospital last week with breathing problems, nausea, dizziness

By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

HILLSVILLE — Virginia Produce officials say they have hired an environmental firm to continue to investigate what sickened workers there on April 1, according to a company news release.
Several employees got headaches and felt nauseous all at once at around 12:30 p.m. at the company’s Carroll County Industrial Park facility.

When company officials called for help, Carroll Fire Rescue responded, found multiple patients and called for mutual aid from emergency services from Carroll, Galax, Wythe and Surry County, N.C, to transport patients to Twin County Regional Hospital, Wythe Community Hospital and Northern Surry Hospital.
All employees were evacuated from the building.
Three employees taken to Duke Medical Center in North Carolina were said to be in satisfactory condition last Wednesday and all other employees had been treated and released.
Figures supplied by Carroll County put the number at 76 people transported, according to Board of Supervisors’ Chairman David Hutchins in a letter shared with local newspapers Thursday.
Among those taken to hospitals included workers from the Mount Rogers Industrial and Developmental Center, wrote Hutchins.  The IDC workers comprised nearly half of all the people checked out by medical personnel.
“The IDC workers were on break and were not involved in the situation,” he wrote. “However, the IDC workers were transported just to make sure there was nothing wrong with them.”
A hazardous materials team from Virginia Department of Emergency Management also responded, with carbon monoxide poisoning considered a possible cause of the incident.
VDEM officials told Virginia Produce officials that several employees could have been exposed to “elevated levels of carbon monoxide,” according to the company’s news release.
“However, at this point, no one knows the cause of the potential exposure and from all indications the exposure was not something that could have been foreseen,” Virginia Produce’s news release said.
Occupational Safety and Health Administrator representative Douglas Coordes, who was on site, told county officials that the cause may never be known, Hutchins shared. But, the investigations have eliminated many possible causes, he added.
Inspections showed no irregularities in the cooling system, the supervisors’ chairman said. That means the cooling units do not appear to be at fault.
“There is no natural gas hooked to the building, so we know that natural gas was not the problem,” Hutchins wrote. “Emergency services monitored for propane leaks and that was not the problem.”
Carbon monoxide poisoning is still being considered as a possible cause, Hutchins wrote.
VDEM and Carroll Fire Rescue officials tested the facility and found it safe to resume operations, company officials added.
Monitoring will continue, because the company wants to “provide the safest work environment possible” for employees, the news release said.
“We have contracted with an environmental consultant firm that will provide an independent analysis and investigation of our facility,” the news release said. “We will not commence our operations until we are satisfied that this issue has been resolved.”
To ensure food safety, officials with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Food Safety and Security Program inspected the produce that was in the warehouse at the time of the incident, company officials said.
“No food safety hazards were observed related to the food products or the facility,” the news release said. “We will continue to monitor this situation and are fully cooperating with all agencies involved with this investigation.”
Virginia Produce thanked the first responders from Carroll Fire Rescue and Carroll County Sheriff’s Office for their quick response.
“This assistance was critical in getting our employees the medical attention they needed as soon as possible and reducing the exposure to other employees,” the news release said. “In addition, we would like to thank the medical community for their attention and professional assistance to our employees.”