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Published: Friday, 6/6/2003

Health scare closes Willard plant

BY JACK BAESSLER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

WILLARD, Ohio - An employee at Midwest Industries diagnosed with Legionnaires' disease forced the plant to close yesterday, idling 800 workers, to give the company time to attempt to remove the infectious bacteria.

Martin Tremmel, commissioner for the Huron County General Health District, said last night that the employee, a man believed to be in his 50s who lives in Shelby, Ohio, was hospitalized for several weeks with the illness.

“It was a serious situation then,” Mr. Tremmel said. “He did slowly recover. Generally, his condition has much improved.”

The ill man's breathing was assisted with a ventilator during a portion of his hospitalization, Mr. Tremmel said.

Plant officials notified the health department yesterday they would shut down production through the weekend to allow for testing and cleansing work to try to rid the source of the infection.

Officials of Midwest could not be reached for comment last night.

The company, which makes lawnmowers and snow blowers, is Willard's second largest employer.

Legionnaires' Disease is a bacterial disease characterized by acute pneumonia, according to a fact sheet on the Ohio Department of Health Web site.

Ohio records about 150 cases of the condition every year, and between 10,000 and 15,000 people get Legionnaires' disease annually in the United States, the fact sheet said.

People with symptoms of Legionnaires' disease may have trouble breathing and experience fatigue, muscle aches, and headache, and have a loss of appetite. A person with the condition may have a fever of over 102 degrees.

The disease is not transmitted from person to person, and the bacterium is found in most water supplies, but is kept under control through chlorination, according to the Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide.

Exposure is believed to take place in the air because of bacteria in hot water systems, air conditioning cooling towers, humidifiers, or fountains, the state health department fact sheet said.

Symptoms occur a week after infection.

The case of Legionnaires' disease came to light when the county health department was notified about three weeks ago by the wife of the ill man. She reported her husband had been admitted to a hospital near their home and diagnosed with Legionnaires' disease, Mr. Tremmel said.

In turn, county health officials contacted Midwest.

“The factory was very forthcoming in having an investigation conducted,” he said.

Health department staff took 10 water samples from the factory's paint room, air conditioners, and wheel washing tanks, he said. The tanks contain a chemical solution for washing mower wheels prior to painting.

At the recommendation of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, the health department sent the samples to an approved laboratory in Michigan for analysis. Two weeks were needed to do adequate testing of the samples.

Lab officials notified plant officials yesterday that two of the 10 samples, both in the wheel washing baths, tested positive for Legionnaires' disease, Mr. Tremmel said.

Additionally, a well at the plant will be tested as a possible source of the disease. Water in the wheel washing tanks comes from the well, while city water supplies most other plant equipment.

County health officials said the employee apparently contracted the illness after surgery unrelated to his Legionnaires' disease.

“I believe he had undergone recent surgery and returned to work,” Mr. Tremmel said.

The bacterium was named after a 1976 outbreak at an American Legion convention in Philadelphia that infected 221 people and killed 34.

Although as much as 20 percent of the population will test positive for Legionnaires' antibodies, most people have mild or no symptoms, the state health department fact sheet said.

Blade staff writer Mark Zaborney contributed to this report.



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