Doc: Tests Show Fisherman Exposed To Mustard Gas

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The doctor treating a fisherman sickened after his boat pulled up canisters of chemicals says tests show he was exposed to mustard gas.

Dr. Edward Boyer, a toxicologist at UMass Memorial Medical Center, said blood and urine tests that confirmed mustard gas exposure came back Monday night.

Boyer said the man, whom he declined to identify, had painful blisters on an arm and leg. He said the patient was "handling it very well."

While dredging for clams, the crew of six on the vessel ESS Pursuit caught the canisters in their nets Sunday about 45 miles south of Long Island but dumped them back into the ocean when the one crew member began developing blisters. It was several hours after he had been exposed to the contents of the container that had broken open, Coast Guard spokesman Jeff Hall said.

The vessel returned to New Bedford at about 4 a.m. Monday to drop off the sickened crew member for treatment before heading back to sea with the remaining five crew members. But a second crew member reported feeling lightheaded, and the boat brought him back to the port at about 9:30 a.m. before going back out.

The second crew member was released from care Monday afternoon, St. Luke's Hospital spokeswoman Joyce Brennan said. Two additional crew members were removed from the vessel Monday night, the Coast Guard said — though only one complained of minor symptoms.

After learning of the incident, the Coast Guard issued a "captain of the port order," a rare command instructing the boat to return to port.

The vessel was anchored south of New Bedford under quarantine Monday evening as officials began investigating the boat. The boat remained isolated off the coast of New Bedford on Tuesday as a Massachusetts civil support team identified the presence of "blister agents" in one area, according to the Coast Guard. Officials are developing a contamination plan as two unaffected crew members remain on board.

"Right now our primary concern is de-contaminating the fishing vessel, making sure that it's safe to come into port," Hall said. "Right now we have it isolated at sea until we can get those agents decontaminated."

The National Marine Fisheries Service and the Massachusetts Department of Food and Agriculture have been notified and are investigating whether the boat's catch — 39,000 pounds of clams which sold Monday in New Bedford — was contaminated, the Coast Guard said in a statement.

Authorities are holding the catch until the investigation is complete.

The Coast Guard plans to work with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to make sure the area where the hazardous containers were found is clearly marked, according to a statement.

Officials are also trying to find the 10 discarded canisters.

This program aired on June 8, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.