Issue Date: January 12, 2004
FRANCE SHUTS EXXONMOBIL PLANT
French officials have--for the second time--forced the temporary closure of ExxonMobil Chemical's oxo alcohols plant in Harnes, near the Belgian border, while they investigate an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease in the surrounding area.
The case is being called the worst ever recorded in France. Since November 2003, nearly 60 people have developed the respiratory disease; of those, seven have died and 20 remain hospitalized.
The plant is officially part of Noroxo SAS, which ExxonMobil acquired in 1988. It has a capacity of 160,000 metric tons per year of a variety of oxo acids and alcohols. None of the people stricken work at the plant.
Last week's closure follows one that occurred Dec. 3–20, 2003. At that time, according to the French public health agency, government workers were sent in to disinfect the plant's cooling system.
According to regional officials, Noroxo first detected the bacterium Legionella pneumophila in the plant's cooling system in October. Plant officials attempted to clean up the system but were unsuccessful, according to governmental tests carried out at the end of November. Those tests led to the first closure and government-supervised cleaning. The continuation of the outbreak led to the second closure.
According to Daniele Iles, an epidemiologist with the health agency, "The agreement in time and space make us think that a great number of cases, from 20 to 25 currently, are related to the Noroxo source." The bacteria are the same as those infecting many of the victims, officials say.
Noroxo managers, however, contend that even if the same bacteria had been found at the factory, it is not necessarily the source of the disease. Hence, Noroxo's criticism of the government's closure of the plant as "an extreme use of the principle of precaution."
The cause of some of the cases is not clear. A second cluster of cases that developed more than 10 days--the normal incubation period--after the first Noroxo closure indicates that there may be a second source of infection as yet unidentified, the health agency points out.
The Legionella bacterium was first discovered in an outbreak of severe pneumonia-like illnesses at a 1976 American Legion convention in Philadelphia. Twenty-nine people died. The ubiquitous bacteria have since caused numerous outbreaks around the world, spread through the air via contaminated water droplets.
According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention in Atlanta, an estimated 8,000 to 18,000 people contract Legionnaires' disease in the U.S. each year. Anywhere from 5 to 30% of the cases are fatal. The disease is treated with antibiotics, with erythromycin the current drug of choice.
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