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Book fair patrons complain of eye, skin irritation

| Thursday, May 10, 2012, 1:58 a.m.

Joanna Blair said she brought home more than a few new items of fiction to read when she returned from a book fair in Monessen on Saturday.

That night, her eyes began to burn and it was difficult to open or close them, said Blair, of Charleroi.

"I noticed my face was sunburn red," she said.

And Blair wasn't the only one.

Others said they experienced red, irritated eyes or red skin that resembled a sunburn after they had attended the Greater Monessen Historical Society's book event at the city's civic center.

They included Terry Tatria, of Jefferson Hills, Allegheny County; Susanna Swade, the chairwoman of the book fair; John DeLuca, Monessen's mayor; and the Rev. Tom Wesdock, of St. John the Baptist Byzantine Catholic Church, Uniontown, along with a church parishioner.

There were at least two other complaints, which have led to an investigation into the cause, said Carl DeiCas, chairman of the city's civic and recreation authority, which oversees the civic center.

"Something happened, obviously," he said.

DeiCas said an industrial hygienist he spoke to Monday asked which cleaning agents were used and asked about ventilation problems.

"We hope to get him out within the week," DeiCas said. "Our season is starting. If there's a problem, we've got to get it cured."

Jessica Seiders, a spokeswoman for the state Health Department, said her agency has not yet been contacted about the incident. She wasn't certain what could have caused the reactions.

Tatria said her symptoms appeared shortly after she had gone to the book event.

"My face got all red," she said. "My eyes were bloodshot. The exposed areas on my neck were all red, like I was under a sunlamp."

Blair and Tatria reportedly were sitting together at the same table for four to five hours, and Wesdock was sitting nearby.

DeLuca said he'd visited the book fair for about 45 minutes.

The mayor said his skin became red at about 6 p.m. Saturday, while he was in Pittsburgh.

"I got very red, flushed," DeLuca said. "My eyes got real bloodshot, and my pulse went up."

He said he went to the emergency room at UPMC Presbyterian Hospital in Pittsburgh's Oakland section. A physician there told him that he may have had a reaction to a medicine he had been taking, the mayor said.

DeLuca attributed the experience to that medication until Monday, when he learned about others who were having similar problems.

"I was surprised," DeLuca said. "I didn't know about everybody else being exposed."

Wesdock, who noticed redness on his face, arms and neck when he returned home that night, said a doctor at The Uniontown Hospital emergency department believed he had come into contact with something that irritated his skin.

"It seemed to affect every area not covered by clothing," Wesdock said. "It seemed to stop at the areas where I had clothing."

All those affected said the symptoms have disappeared or greatly lessened.

DeiCas asked those showing signs to submit letters listing their reactions so the environmental specialist can review them.

DeLuca said city officials considered whether a broken light at the center could have caused the reactions. That light has since been replaced, DeLuca said.

DeiCas said he didn't know about a broken light.

Joanne Lapresti, the center's manager, said there had been a damaged light, but was uncertain of what type of light it was.

She speculated that it was probably broken by children and cleaned up without being reported to center officials.

DeiCas and Lapresti said they've had only one other similar complaint from an adult. That report, involving a man's watering eyes, was made during the summer, they said.

A few children also have mentioned watery eyes, but those were attributed to the activities they were involved in and the heat in the building, Lapresti said.

DeLuca urged all to remain calm.

"We don't want to create a panic," the mayor said. "We're looking. We're concerned, and we're looking into it."

Blair, an author and freelance writer for the Tribune-Review, and Tatria reported that their doctors were unsure what caused their reactions. One doctor reportedly suspected conjunctivitis, better known as "pink eye."

The doctors went on to treat their symptoms, they said. In Tatria's case, she also was told not to wear her contact lenses until later this week.

"He said he would be interested in what the findings are," Blair said of her physician.

"It's scary. It's absolutely scary," she said. "And everybody chalked it up as something individual, until we all had the same thing."

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