July 31, 1993
Fluoride Blamed in 3 Deaths:
Traces found in Blood of U. of C. Dialysis Patients
by Gary Wieby
Fluoride poisoning was blamed Friday in the July 16 deaths of three dialysis patients at the University of Chicago Hospitals.
Hospital spokeswoman Susan Phillips said symptoms suffered by the victims — and by six other dialysis patients who developed symptoms similar to allergic reactions — “were consistent with fluoride exposure.”
Traces of the chemical were found in patients’ blood serum and in water samples taken at the treatment center at 1164 E. 55th, Phillips said.
Small amounts of fluoride are added to help prevent tooth decay. A series of devices used to purify the water used for dialysis somehow failed to do so, Phillips said.
Hospital president Ralph Muller said, “We will continue our investigation.”
The finding was confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, which is assisting in the investigation along with the Illinois Public Health Department. In addition, samples were tested by laboratories from around the country, Phillips said.
The victims were Beulah Wynn, 86, of the 1400 block of East 68th Street; Ardelle Bell, 78, of the 6200 block of South King Drive, and Mattie Lee, 80, of the 7200 block of South Euclid Avenue.
All suffered from advanced heart disease in addition to the kidney disease that necessitated the blood-cleaning dialysis process.
Exposure to high fluoride levels is rare. But because large volumes of water are used in dialyzing kidney patients, they can accumulate harmful amounts of fluoride if the water is untreated.
Water cleanliness standards are based on exposure by healthy people to 14 liters a week. Dialysis patients use more than 300 liters a week.
The U. of C. Hospitals’ water purification system uses deionized, reverse osmosis, water softeners and three filtration methods. “We’re looking at the entire system,” Phillips said.
The 55th Street facility will be closed until the investigation is completed. Until then, its patients will be treated at the hospital, which has a separate filtration system, or a second off-site dialysis center.
Phillips said none of the hospit’s 250 dialysis patients, who undergo the process three times a week, have canceled appointments since the deaths occurred.
The death rate for dialysis patients is 26 percent a year in Illinois. The rate at the U. of C. Hospitals fell from 17 percent in 1989 to 11 percent last year, officials said.
See: FDA’s Health Alert