Answers to onion-odor illnesses will be found

Ben Nelms's picture

In this line of work you see the best and the worst, the ordinary and the extraordinary. You travel from boardrooms to living rooms, from roadside tragedies to hillside wonders. You stand witness to forces that tear people apart, but you also witness the unrivaled glory of the human spirit.

There was a day a couple of months ago when I stood on the side of a road for a handful of hours, speaking with some of the many people that stopped by. As those brief hours unfolded I got my first glimpse of something I had not expected, something I will likely not forget, something that was altering the lives of more people that I could have imagined.

A little table had been set up on the corner by a woman concerned about the changes in her health in recent weeks. Connie wondered if others had experienced similar problems.

As a journalist, my task was to see what was going on, to talk quietly with some of those who stopped by, to hear their story, to talk about their lives.

When those three hours ended, I had no doubt that Fayette and Fulton counties had a problem.

Surprisingly at the time, most everyone of the 30 to 40 people I spoke with had some type of current illness in their families and usually involving more than one family member, all in the past few weeks, all with one or more of a handful of symptoms, all complaining about the sickening smell of onions.

The thing is, I did not speak with anyone who even knew their neighbors were ill with the same symptoms. But that’s not too surprising today, in a society where few people even know their neighbors.

Those three hours documented the first 100 people with what appears to be the symptoms of exposure to cholinesterase-inhibiting organophosphate pesticides and other chemicals.

Three days later, more than 50 others were identified. Today, that current total stands at more than 750 residents of north Fayette and south Fulton having experienced the same handful of symptoms.

The current situation shows that several dogs and cats in the immediate area died during the same time frame with many others sick or refusing to go outside.

Numerous people report a large drop in the number of birds this summer while one beekeeper lost nearly half his hives, something he has never experienced during the summer months.

All these occurrences, human and domestic animal and wildlife, all during the same time frame and all in the same limited geographical area. God only knows what the real total may be.

Philip Services Corp. says they have not made anyone sick. AMVAC and Bayer will likely say the same.

OK. So what has caused such illness?

EPD, largely a permitting agency, with only weak legislatively-generated authority for monitoring and enforcement, can’t find the reasons. Do you think they will?

Public Health is now studying the illnesses. Maybe they will find something. Maybe not.

Fortunately, the results of all these efforts will become public documents and available for detailed public and scientific review.

Here’s what we do know. Many hundreds in a relatively small geographic area are or have been sick. They certainly appear to be manifesting symptoms of cholinesterase depression or something similar, brought on by exposure to organophosphates or some type of chemical agent.

Or maybe we have had a biological terrorist incident that no one in government has picked up on.

Whether acknowledged or not, we have a real-time public health emergency happening right now, made to order for a localized response by local, state and federal agencies. Those who have EARS let them hear.

So here’s a prediction. EPD will find nothing of consequence. Public Health will find illness but be unable to account for them. The lax involvement of many state and federal elected officials who serve these areas will be maintained. EPA will quietly step aside.

But this issue will not go away. The South Fulton/Fayette Community Task Force and this newspaper will continue to fight for answers.

Everything flows backwards in space and time to money and power. The answers will be found.

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Submitted by imaonemanwoman on Sun, 09/10/2006 - 7:31pm.

I wanted to thank Ben Nelms for his great coverage of the PSC subject. He is doing an outstanding job of staying on top of this issue and not letting it vanish into government white-wash land. His articles always seem to be right on the mark on any subject he tackles. He appears to be an excellent investigative reporter and I hope to see more of his writing.

Submitted by justwant2live on Thu, 09/07/2006 - 11:32pm.

Maybe PSC should process more mouth wash! My bad, they can't because this would be safe for the environment. Great article Ben and yes we will find the answers, no matter what it takes. Keep up the good work.

Darrell Guice

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