A 'Mystery Illness' No More

deadly in large quantities, was to blame for the sudden illness of six people in the downtown Yonkers apartment, a health official said. The packet was determined to contain 100 percent sodium nitrite. CBS/AP

A chemical that poisoned six people who thought it was salt has been traced to a man who apparently used it in his meat-curing business and stored it in a salt bag, the police commissioner said Tuesday.

All six people survived the sudden, violent illness that came on them during a Thursday night dinner party in Yonkers and that sparked fears of chemical contamination in the area. All but one of the victims have been released from a hospital, and the remaining patient's condition was upgraded Tuesday from critical to stable.

The man who stored the chemical had recently moved back to Egypt and had asked one of the victims of Thursday night's poisoning to clean out his apartment, police Commissioner Charles Cola said. She found a bag of sodium nitrite, which was labeled as salt in English and Arabic and looked as if it had never been opened, and decided to keep it, Cola said.

"The bag was factory sealed on the top and looked like it was unopened, but on the bottom it was stapled closed," he said. "The guy had apparently used it to store sodium nitrite, maybe from bigger bags. So these people opened it thinking it was a fresh bag of salt, and meanwhile it was a repackaged bag of sodium nitrite."

The scenario, if confirmed, would appear to make the poisoning an accidental, isolated incident. Police had been leaning away from foul-play theories.

Cola said there were other bags of sodium nitrite in the apartment, properly labeled. The commissioner said that police had not yet been able to talk to the man in Egypt but that he apparently used the chemical in a meat-curing business. Sodium nitrite is often used as a preservative, in small amounts.

When the victims ingested it, the chemical changed their red blood cells into abnormal cells that blocked the transfer of oxygen to tissue, a rare condition called methemoglobinemia, doctors said.

Before Cola's announcement, when the origin of the mispackaged chemical was still a mystery, the Westchester County Health Department had prepared Arabic-language fliers, scheduled for distribution Wednesday, featuring a photo of the salt bag and a warning not to use anything from any similar bag.

All the victims, whose names were not made public, were of Egyptian heritage, and investigators had felt it was possible there could be other mislabeled bags in Egypt. But the Egyptian Health Ministry's department in charge of recording medical emergencies said Tuesday it had no reports of similar cases.

The federal Food and Drug Administration also was investigating. Spokeswoman Carrie Ainsworth-Wright said she could not provide details because the probe was continuing.
  • Dan Collins

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