Two state employees who were gathering water samples in the lower Pocomoke River have developed health problems that appear to be related to exposure to the toxic microorganism Pfiesteria piscicida, state officials said yesterday.
The two are lab technicians who were splashed in the waters off Shelltown while aboard small boats, said Robert M. Summers, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment.
A 4.5-mile stretch of the lower Pocomoke River near Shelltown was closed as a health precaution for almost a week because of a significant fish kill. Preliminary test results showed Pfiesteria, a toxic dinoflagellate, was present in the Pocomoke.
The Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene said yesterday that a team of physicians will perform medical examinations Friday at the Somerset County Health Department.
The state had announced plans earlier in the month to send a the team to treat individuals who have symptoms linked to exposure to the microorganism.
The team will be led by Dr. J. Glenn Morris, a professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. He was formerly with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and is a specialist in infectious disease with expertise in dinoflagellate-associated illness.
Among 10 people who will be treated at the clinic Friday is one of the two Maryland Department of the Environment lab technicians, confirmed Tori Leonard, spokeswoman for the health department. "But beyond that, I cannot give you any more information," she said.
The lab technicians work for the environment department's Water Quality Monitoring Program. They were wearing gloves for protection as they used hoses to draw water into containers, said Summers.
The employees, who were not identified, contacted the Somerset County Health Department and saw their own physicians last week after becoming ill, Summers said.
He declined to describe the technicians' symptoms, but said one has returned to work.
"They're not terribly ill," Summers said. "Neither one of these people are in any life-threatening conditions."
Physicians say that symptoms associated with Pfiesteria-related illnesses include skin lesions, headaches, short-term memory loss and respiratory ailments.
One worker is scheduled to be treated by a specialist at Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina, where Pfiesteria has killed a billion fish and been linked to human ailments.
Dr. Donald Schmechel, a neurologist at the medical center in Durham, N.C., has treated several Pfiesteria patients since the microorganism was discovered in North Carolina nine years ago.
He said he plans to examine the lab technician tomorrow or Thursday. Last week he treated a water skier who became ill after falling into the waters of the Pocomoke.
The river was reopened Wednesday for fishing, crabbing and other recreational uses. Officials concluded that any toxins released by the microorganism were no longer an immediate health threat because the fish kill had ended.
Watermen working the Pocomoke began finding fish with lesions in the river last fall, and the problem escalated during winter, leading to a kill of thousands of fish near Shelltown.
Several watermen and a swimmer have also complained of lesions or other health symptoms linked to exposure to water in the river.
The clinic visits Friday will be by appointment only. Watermen and others who have been invited to appear will undergo a battery of tests.
"We will begin by assessing the level of severity of the symptoms and the immediacy of problems related to exposure to the Pocomoke River and subsequent illness in these 10 individuals," said Morris.
"We are very concerned about what the watermen and others are telling us," said Dr. Martin P. Wasserman, Maryland health secretary, "and we are aggressively seeking answers."
Schmechel said that all of those he has treated for illnesses associated with Pfiesteria -- most of them from North Carolina -- have recovered from their ailments.
He said that medical tests may not be able to confirm that his patient's ailments are Pfiesteria related because so many other environmental factors -- such as mosquito bites or something the worker ate -- could have caused symptoms.
"None of these cases are going to be slam dunk Pfiesteria," Schmechel said. "Even the organism itself is hard to identify."
Pub Date: 8/19/97