SPOKANE - An 83-year-old Richland woman suspected of being sickened by tainted spinach in September has died, but her lawyer said Monday he doubts she will be listed as the fourth fatality of a nationwide E. coli outbreak.
Betty Howard died Friday of heart failure in a Richland rehabilitation facility, nearly five months after she was hospitalized with symptoms of sickness caused by eating contaminated spinach, said Bill Marler, a Seattle lawyer.
Washington Department of Health spokesman Jeff Smith said the agency had received no report that Howard died as the result of E. coli poisoning.
Stephanie Magill, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, referred questions to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
CDC spokeswoman Lola Russell said Monday the agency has not changed its count since October, when three people had died and 199 people were infected in 26 states. A death in Maryland is under investigation, she said.
Howard, a retired secretary for a Hanford nuclear reservation contractor, became ill after eating a turkey sandwich with spinach in early September, her son Darryl Howard said in an e-mail.
She had been living independently in her own home until she became ill, her son said.
Marler, who also represents families of two other victims of the tainted spinach outbreak, said he doubts Howard will be listed as a victim, even though her case was confirmed by genetic tests that linked it to the fatal strain of E. coli.
"Its DNA fingerprint matches all the others in the outbreak and that in bags of spinach," he said. "Whether they list it as the cause of death, it's unlikely, given the time frame between the outbreak and her death and given she was 83."
Marler said Howard was living independently "and doing pretty well, but she ate spinach and went downhill from there."
The FDA said people became ill after eating bagged fresh spinach from California's Salinas Valley in September.
The agency's investigation, launched Sept. 13, was one of the most extensive in its history.
E. coli, short for Escherichia coli, is a common and ordinarily harmless intestinal bacteria. But the strain E. coli O157:H7 is a leading cause of foodborne illness. Symptoms include severe cramping, vomiting and bloody diarrhea. The worst cases result in kidney failure.
E. coli lives in the intestines of cattle and other animals and typically is linked to contamination by fecal material. It causes an estimated 73,000 infections in the United States each year, including 61 deaths, according to the CDC.
E. coli poisoning particularly affects the very young and very old. The three confirmed victims of the spinach contamination were two elderly women and a 2-year-old Idaho boy.
Services were scheduled Thursday in Richland for Howard, who is survived by three sons, grandchildren and a great-grandchild, her son said in the e-mail.