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Chemical mishap on fishing boat off LI sickens crew

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BOSTON (AP) - A fishing boat dredging for clams off New York's Long Island pulled up 10 canisters, including one that broke open and released an unidentified chemical that caused two crew members to blister and struggle to breathe, the U.S. Coast Guard said Monday.

The ESS Pursuit took the sickened crew members back to its New Bedford, Mass., port, where emergency medical workers rushed them to St. Luke's Hospital on Monday morning.

One was transferred to Massachusetts General Hospital for further treatment after his condition worsened, Fire Chief Brian Faria said. The other was released in the afternoon, St. Luke's Hospital spokeswoman Joyce Brennan said.

The crew of six caught the canisters in their nets Sunday about 45 miles south of Long Island but dumped them back into the ocean when 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, Faria said. 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, he said.

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 members of the National Guard's hazardous material and a Rhode Island-based firefighting unit prepared to investigate and decontaminate it if necessary.

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

Authorities were able to track down the catch and are holding it until the investigation is complete.

It was not immediately clear what chemical was involved and experts were trying to determine its nature, Hall said.

He declined to confirm comments he made earlier to the Standard Times of New Bedford that hospital workers and Emergency Medical Service technicians had reported that the crew may have been exposed to mustard agent, an oily liquid first used in World War I that can cause massive breakouts of blisters on contact and can be deadly if inhaled.

Brennan of St. Luke's Hospital said the information did not come from its doctors and cautioned against relying on diagnosis by emergency medical technicians who may not have had enough time to study the patients and their symptoms.

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.

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A Massachusetts doctor says a fisherman who was sickened after his boat pulled up munitions south of Long Island was exposed to mustard gas, The Associated Press reported Tuesday.

Four crew members of a Massachusetts fishing boat were hospitalized and the boat quarantined after it dredged up two shells Sunday 45 miles southwest of Fire Island Inlet, the U.S. Coast Guard said.

The canisters were pulled up Monday in a section of the Atlantic Ocean called Hudson Canyon. The boat's catch - 39,000 pounds of clams - was also seized for testing.

The canisters were dumped back overboard by the crew of the ESS Pursuit, but not before one broke open, authorities said. The canisters caused blistering and breathing problems for two crew members who were hospitalized Monday.

Two additional members of the crew of six were later hospitalized with similar symptoms, Coast Guard Petty Officer James Rhodes said.

The captain and first mate remained on the vessel now moored west of Buzzards Bay and the Vineyard Sound, south of its home port of New Bedford, Mass.

Dr. Edward Boyer, a toxicologist at the University of Massachusetts Memorial Medical Center, said blood and urine tests confirmed at least one of the fishermen had been exposed to mustard gas, according to the AP.

He told AP the man, whose identity was not released, had painful blisters on his arm and leg but was "handling it well."

The U.S. military used the ocean as a dumping ground for munitions, including a mustard agent, from after World War II through the 1960s, the AP said.

Mustard gas was a battlefield weapon of choice in World War I, dispersed as an aerosol to kill infantry troops confined to a maze of battle trenches.

Its mixture with other chemicals gave it a yellow-brown color and a distinctive smell, according to historians.

History suggests it was not an overly effective killing agent, though it gained a reputation for its incapacitating side effects and horrible burns.

The area in which the canisters were found is a hot spot for commercial and recreational fishing, authorities said.

However, the Coast Guard said nautical charts of the area note known dump sites that contain World War I and World War II-era ordinance.

The site where the canisters were found is at least 60 feet deep, Rhodes said.

The Coast Guard broadcast a warning to fishermen of the dangers after the incident was reported Monday, Rhodes said.

The Coast Guard is working with Massachusetts health officials and the U.S. Public Health Service to determine the extent of the exposure. But Rhodes said it was not clear if the Coast Guard was attempting to locate the canisters or if authorities planned to re-dredge those containers for testing.

The Coast Guard said none of the clams the boat caught reached the market. The clams are being held in isolation at Sea Watch International in New Bedford and samples are being tested by the Massachusetts Department of Food and Agriculture for contamination.

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