A crew member aboard a clamming vessel that pulled up mysterious canisters from the ocean off Long Island was exposed to mustard gas, the World War I chemical warfare agent, the doctor treating the man said today.
Ed Boyer, a professor of emergency medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester who is leading the team treating the man, said he was doing well after suffering burns on his arm and leg. Boyer said it was the only non-military occupational exposure to mustard gas in the United States he had ever heard of.
"What is stunning to everyone is it is still so potent after all this time," said Boyer, a medical toxicologist who studies mustard gas.
The Coast Guard said blister agents -- a group of chemicals that includes mustard gas -- were found in one area of the ESS Pursuit today, and the Coast Guard, the EPA, and other federal, state, and local agencies were developing a decontamination plan for the boat.
The finding of blister agents is "in alignment with the symptoms that the crew members have experienced," said Chief Petty Officer Jeff Hall, a spokesman for the Coast Guard. Health experts say such agents can damage skin, eyes, and lungs.
Boyer's patient was one of several crew members taken to the hospital on Monday and Tuesday. Boyer said his patient is a New Jersey man who works out of New Bedford who has burns on his arm and leg. He said the man is not expected to be released tonight.
Mustard gas is lethal if breathed in, but it was not designed to kill outright. Rather, armies would use it to "create a medical burden" and make it difficult to move troops from one place to another, Boyer said.
The master, Kieran Kelly, and first mate, who have no reported symptoms, have chosen to remain on the vessel to monitor its safety. A mooring buoy will be placed south of Fairhaven so the vessel and its crew can be safely moored and decontaminated, the Coast Guard said.
Kelly said in a telephone interview from the boat that the crew had hauled 10 bullet-shaped canisters, about two feet long and several inches around, and one had broken. The crew quickly dumped them all back into the ocean.
The blue-and-white boat, which is based out of Atlantic City, N.J., was easily visible from the shore at Fort Tabor State Park today. A Coast Guard cutter is maintaining a safety zone around the vessel, the Coast Guard said.
The incident happened south of Long Island on Sunday morning.
Blister agents were the most commonly used substance in chemical warfare in World War I, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.
People exposed to mustard gas on their skin are often not aware of it until 24 hours later when enormous, raised blisters occur; that is exactly what happened to the crew member, Boyer said.
The clams the crew unloaded and sold in New Bedford have been isolated by state officials, the Coast Guard said.
State Fire Marshal Steve Coan said his HazMat team is trying to detemine how to dispose of the 14,400 bushels of clams.
"Our hazardous waste team is developing a mitgation plan to observe and detect if there is any nerve agent or explosive material in the contaminated catch," said Coan in a phone interview.
"We are trying to figure out how and where the catch would be disposed," said Coan. "It has been deemed contaminated by state officials, so it will need to be disposed of."
He said the catch is curently frozen in an ice house in New Bedford. The hazardous waste team hopes to dispose of the contaminated clams sometime over the next day.
Martin Finucane of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
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