Chemical contamination of food from a kitchen ice machine is the “more likely” cause of an illness that sickened more than 100 Red Bay Primary School students and staff Sept. 2, according to a final report on the incident from Cayman’s environmental health and public heath departments.
However, that finding is seemingly contradicted by statements from the technicians who repaired the machine and is not listed as the certain cause of the illness. Other potential causes identified by the department included potential food poisoning through a toxin and the existence of “some other” environmental contaminant in the school.
“It is not uncommon that investigations into the outbreak of illness such as this cannot always determine the exact cause of the outbreak,” the report, released late Friday, stated. “It is deemed more likely that the cause of the illness was linked to the chemical contamination from the ice machine.”
The reason that cause is considered more likely is largely because the food served at Red Bay Primary that day was also served by the same catering company at the Lighthouse School, which shares the Mary Miller Hall with Red Bay, and at the George Town Primary School with no illnesses reported.
On the day the illnesses occurred, sending 23 people from Red Bay Primary to hospital to seek medical care, school caterer Mise en Place reported that there had been an “incident” with the ice machine in the school’s cafeteria kitchen and servery.
A technician from Island Supply examined the kitchen ice machine around 9:30 a.m. on Sept. 2 and found that there was no refrigerant gas in the machine. The technician also discovered a leak, which was repaired, and later added refrigerant.
Between 11:30 a.m. and noon of the same day, Mise en Place staff reported there was a “loud bang” from the ice machine, shortly after which a “vapor cloud filled the kitchen.” This occurred while food was being served to the students and caused some individuals who inhaled fumes from the “vapor cloud” to become sick, the government report stated.
The report states that Mise en Place staff members were instructed to thoroughly disinfect the kitchen area, remove the ice from the machine and shut it down until the matter could be investigated. The report states this disinfection occurred between Sept. 3 and Sept. 4. It is understood by the Cayman Compass that food service to the schoolchildren continued on Sept. 2 following this “vapor cloud” incident.
The technician who serviced the ice machine was interviewed as part of the government’s review. He told officials there was “no loud bang” from the machine and that he left all in good working order when he departed the school around 12:20 p.m. on Sept. 2. He said there was a small emission of refrigerant gas during the service when the hose to the machine was unplugged, but said “this was normal” when servicing this kind of machine.
Polar Bear Air Conditioning company was called in to examine the ice machine. According to the company’s response to the report, it was “highly unlikely” that the ice machine caused any illness due to a refrigerant leak.
“Illness from refrigerant would not likely occur unless there was a high concentration for a sustained period,” Polar Bear service manager Mark Veilleux stated. “These conditions did not appear to exist.” The company said unsanitary ice machines can cause illness, but noted that was impossible for its technician to determine in this case. The technician who examined the ice machine did state it was “not clean.”
Toxic food poisoning through a bacterial infection known as Staphylococcus aureus or S. aureus was considered as a possibility by reviewers, and could not be entirely ruled out, officials said. The danger with this particular bacteria is that it cannot be killed even by thoroughly cooking the affected food, Department of Environmental Health Officials said.
Tests of food samples from Red Bay Primary did not show S. aureus bacteria present.
“However, it must be noted that whilst the Department of Environmental Health laboratory can test for the presence of S. aureus bacteria, it does not have the capacity to test for the presence of toxin,” the government report stated. “This test is not available on island.”
Results of tests screening Red Bay Primary employees for S. aureus infection were negative and, in any case, incident reviewers pointed out no similar sickness at the Lighthouse School or George Town Primary on Sept. 2, despite the same caterer serving the same food.
Tests for “other environmental contaminants” around the school were done. However, they were not performed in the kitchen area until Sept. 4 – one day after a thorough disinfection of that area had already begun.
Nine environmental “swabs” were conducted in the kitchen and nine others were done in other areas around the school. According to the report, all tests were “satisfactory” except for two locations – both water fountains that school officials said were “not in widespread usage for children.”
The school principal, Vickie Fredericks, was instructed to ensure the two water fountains were fully cleaned and disinfected. “There is insufficient evidence to conclude that the cause was a general outbreak of infectious disease, given the type and timing of the symptoms,” the environmental health review stated.