Workplace poisonings
November 7, 2009 10:50 AM   Subscribe

Last August, six Harvard scientists went to the hospital after drinking coffee laced with sodium azide, in what appears to be a delibarate posioning. Previous laboratory-related poisonings have occured at other prestigious institutions, although radioactivity is generally the method of choice.

In 1998, a Brown graduate student fed two students (one of whom was his ex-girlfriend) a dish of chicken, vegetables, and radioactive iodine. In 1996, an MIT researcher was poisoned with radioactive P-32. In 1995, 27 NIH employees were poisoned with P-32 that was later detected in their kitchen and water cooler. That incident remains unsolved.

A brief history of poisoning.
posted by emd3737 (57 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
 
The wikipedia page for sodium azide is kind of sinister.

"Sodium azide is the inorganic compound with the formula NaN3. This colourless azide salt is the gas-forming component in many car airbag systems. It is used for the preparation of other azide compounds. It is highly soluble in water."

That's the whole "above the fold" summary.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 11:03 AM on November 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


What sort of academic poisoning thread is this, without a mention of Oppenheimer's apple?
posted by geoff. at 11:04 AM on November 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Well, this beats an ex-receptionist at my office that once brought dumpster pastries to share. "They're still good!" she claimed, sounding like Homer Simpson defending his airborne pig.
posted by Servo5678 at 11:04 AM on November 7, 2009


This is pretty obscure but in 1970 a disgruntled postdoctoral student poisoned four associates by dumping ascaris (large roundworm) eggs into their coffee. J.A. Kranz, a graduate student in parasitology, took the Ascaris suum eggs that he used against his roommates from the collections in the university laboratory where he studied. I believe the poisoning was nonfatal but two suffered severe respiratory problems. Following discovery of the parasites an arrest warrant was issued for Kranz charging him with attempted murder.
(story is in NEJM, 1972, 965-970 -- if you manage to get a copy pleeeze MeMail me)
posted by crapmatic at 11:22 AM on November 7, 2009 [3 favorites]


If it's available to you, I recommend The Young Poisoner's Handbook. wiki Based on the murders committed by Graham Young.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 11:31 AM on November 7, 2009


Not entirely the same topic, but a student tried to poison my 8th grade science teacher by putting ethyl alcohol in his bottle of Coca-Cola.

And later some hoodlums broke into his classroom, stole his computer, and killed his parrots.

I think he quit at the end of that year. Too bad, too; he was a good teacher.
posted by Target Practice at 11:32 AM on November 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


Why radioactivity? It apparently often fails to kill the intended victims. What is the perpetrator thinking? "Now your lifespan may be shortened, and you will be at higher risk of developing several types of cancers, bwahahah!"
posted by salvia at 11:34 AM on November 7, 2009 [4 favorites]


"cancer," singular, I should say
posted by salvia at 11:35 AM on November 7, 2009


My brother is a biologist who's had to deal with several bomb and anthrax scares. Anti-intellectualism and terrorism are best buddies.
posted by roll truck roll at 11:37 AM on November 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


For more on the Philadelphia Poison Ring and boy if truth doesn't always trump fiction! David Mamet and the Coen Bros. have nothing on these people.
posted by emhutchinson at 11:44 AM on November 7, 2009


Here is still more on the subject from a law enforcement point of view. The psychology stuff (page 50 onward) is interesting if accurate . . . I always wonder why, aside from obvious motivations like gain and revenge, poisoners do it.
posted by bearwife at 11:51 AM on November 7, 2009


a student tried to poison my 8th grade science teacher by putting ethyl alcohol in his bottle of Coca-Cola

Clearly, he needed a little more science education.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 11:52 AM on November 7, 2009 [6 favorites]


Not entirely the same topic, but a student tried to poison my 8th grade science teacher by putting ethyl alcohol in his bottle of Coca-Cola.

I should be so lucky as to be poisoned that way!
posted by jtron at 11:54 AM on November 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


I've heard through the grapevine that my Grade 7 math teach recently had a heart attack after drinking coffee laced with laxatives, which interfered with his cholesterol medication.

When I was in his class, all we ever put in his coffee was his chalk—I swear.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:58 AM on November 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Well, my face is red.

It was actually isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol. Not sure how I confused the two.
posted by Target Practice at 12:00 PM on November 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


My Dad did his PhD thesis on azide chemistry. He still has scars -- azides are damned unstable. I'm kind of surprised that a homicidal chemist working with them wouldn't just blow people up.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:21 PM on November 7, 2009 [3 favorites]


Yeah, attempted poisoning by radioactivity is pretty weird. Too slow, too exotic (how many people have access to radioisotopes?), too easy to detect if you know what you're looking for. Kinda suggests that the perp is a layman who knows that radiation is bad for you but doesn't really have a clue beyond that. Support staff usually have to sit through Environmental Health & Safety Dept presentations about all the dangerous stuff that gets used in labs, which basically amount to "keep yer mitts offa this and this and this", without going into any detail. And there's an endless supply of undergraduates who see too many bad movies ... I can't believe a real scientist would choose a radioisotope as their murder weapon.

What's freaky is that all 3 radiation poisoning stores linked above involve Chinese people. Is there some kind of cultural thing going on here?
posted by Quietgal at 12:27 PM on November 7, 2009


If by sinister you mean a random hodge-podge of facts, I'll give you that.

If you're a chemist, knowing what something is soluble in is important. A lot of people use 0.1% sodium azide to keep things from growing in their buffers. If sodium azide fell to the bottom of your bottle in a little lump and stayed there, that wouldn't be so very useful.

Personally, reading the toxicologist's commentary, I think someone ought to buy him a copy of one of the many Darwin Awards books that are out there. I can easily imagine someone who thought using a laboratory cleaning solution was a sure way to get the hard water residue out of the coffee maker.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 12:28 PM on November 7, 2009 [3 favorites]


Isopropyl or ethyl, it's not a good thing to drink. Pretty much all science supply alcohols contain a vomit inducing agent to keep people from running bathtub liquor operations.
posted by spiderskull at 12:32 PM on November 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


And this reminds me -- we had a long drawn out case in New Zealand a few years ago where a biologist was accused of poisoning her lover with acrylamide. She wasn't convicted but some people think this is because the jury couldn't understand the evidence.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:40 PM on November 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


I give you the most ridiculously dangerous inorganic compound (that I know of). I figure people would use it for more poisonings if it weren't so easy to poison yourself with it.
posted by Jpfed at 12:42 PM on November 7, 2009 [4 favorites]


I give you the most ridiculously dangerous inorganic compound (that I know of).

Great. One more thing I have to pretend doesn't exist.
posted by Burhanistan at 12:51 PM on November 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


I was working in another lab in the area when the sodium azide incident happend. Damn, I have no idea how I missed that.

Sodium azide's commonly used in bio labs as an antibacterial agent for various solutions (soluble and toxic isn't actually "sinister" - most things that affect us (good or bad) are somewhat soluble.) I've usually run into it in the context of milk-based primary antibody solutions for Western blots. I always avoided it using it myself though; never wanted to handle the stuff as a chemist, becaused it seemed unnecessarily dangerous for the task, and it can cause problems later on during a standard Western blot. But yeah, very toxic and shock sensitive/explosive is an unfortunate combination.

I'm actually about to head into lab and work with P-32. Which is not really very exotic - radiolabeled compounds are actually pretty commonly used in biochem labs - but is pretty useless as a poison (unless we're talking amounts huge enough to cause immediate radiation poisoning, which almost no lab would be permitted to have by their safety offices). Long-term, repeated exposure is, however, a great way to increase your chances of cancer.

I'd guess it was someone who worked in a lab who did the P-32 poisonings, though: in most labs where I've worked with radioactive stuff, the radioactive compounds need to be kept in a locked freezer or fridge, making it a little harder to access than all of the actually poisonous things on the chemical shelves. Maybe the intent was to injure and frighten, rather than kill?
posted by ubersturm at 12:51 PM on November 7, 2009


What's freaky is that all 3 radiation poisoning stores linked above involve Chinese people. Is there some kind of cultural thing going on here?
posted by Quietgal at 3:27 PM on November 7 [+] [!]


Well, in two of the articles, Chinese people are victims of poisoning, which would make for a strange cultural thing.

I should also point out that Chinese people are disproportionately involved in lab work in the United States.
posted by Comrade_robot at 12:53 PM on November 7, 2009


I give you the most ridiculously dangerous inorganic compound (that I know of). I figure people would use it for more poisonings if it weren't so easy to poison yourself with it.

This is why, when I hear people on this website complain about their crumby cubicle jobs pumping out crap code and other endless keyboard tapping for 6 figures/year ("boo hoo, oh how they wish they were doing real science blah blah blah..."), I turn off the computer, step outside and go for a walk and contemplate the ignorance.
posted by peppito at 12:56 PM on November 7, 2009


This link is interesting; found it searching for more information about the poisonous aspects of antimony, as mentioned in one of the originally linked stories.
posted by limeonaire at 1:09 PM on November 7, 2009


Why radioactivity? It apparently often fails to kill the intended victims.

When all you have is a hammer...
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:25 PM on November 7, 2009


My Dad did his PhD thesis on azide chemistry. He still has scars -- azides are damned unstable. I'm kind of surprised that a homicidal chemist working with them wouldn't just blow people up.

My worst lab accident ever was getting a hipful of erlenmeyer flask pieces when an azide compound I was preparing exploded: the nurse picking out the bits said it reminded her of picking out shrapnel.
posted by francesca too at 1:28 PM on November 7, 2009


Weird. Right now a grad student from the University of Kansas is in the hospital in critical condition after ingesting sodium azide in a university lab. I haven't seen anything about whether it was an accident, suicide attempt, or poisoning.
posted by banishedimmortal at 1:31 PM on November 7, 2009


Is there not the possibility that the sodium azide in this case formed naturally?
From mixing different flavours of non-dairy creamer together, perhaps.
posted by Flashman at 1:38 PM on November 7, 2009


Well, frighteningly enough, apparently acrylamide forms naturally in heated potatoes and bread.
posted by limeonaire at 1:43 PM on November 7, 2009


Polonium-210 seemed to work well at killing Alexander Litvinenko.
posted by lukemeister at 1:44 PM on November 7, 2009 [3 favorites]


Isopropyl or ethyl, it's not a good thing to drink.

Quick, you'd better get to bars, restaurants, bottle shops and convenience stores all over the world and let folks know, they could be in mortal peril.

Denatured ethanol
isn't potable, but ethyl alcohol in coke is just a really shitty mixed drink.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 1:50 PM on November 7, 2009


Also, speaking of poisons, a follow-up for those who laughed at me and sneebler when we pointed out the dangers of copper (II) sulfate in this thread—apparently they in fact made visitors to the installation wear rubber boots and gloves.

Unfortunately, rubber boots and gloves do nothing against the most ridiculously dangerous inorganic compound mentioned earlier in the thread.
posted by limeonaire at 1:58 PM on November 7, 2009


If by sinister you mean a random hodge-podge of facts, I'll give you that.

If you're a chemist, knowing what something is soluble in is important.


Well, yes, I know that. I just thought it was funny that its solubility in water is deemed the 4th most important fact a layperson should know about it (since it was included in the very brief, "essential" summary portion.)

And then we're talking about using it to poison someone by sticking it their drink... and, yeah.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 2:03 PM on November 7, 2009


solipsophistocracy: Denatured ethanol isn't potable, but ethyl alcohol in coke is just a really shitty mixed drink.

If an idiot tried to use lab ethanol to poison someone, it would almost certainly be denatured ethanol. Non-denatured ethanol is either really hard to get or much more expensive (depends on whether you want to get a ATF exemption or just pay the tax) so you probably wouldn't have it around a lab unless you specifically needed it.
posted by Mitrovarr at 2:15 PM on November 7, 2009


geoff.,

Did Oppenheimer explain why he placed the apple on his tutor's desk? For that matter, did this actually happen?
posted by lukemeister at 2:17 PM on November 7, 2009


> If an idiot tried to use lab ethanol to poison someone, it would almost certainly be denatured ethanol.

Nonsense. If you're using ethanol in the lab you use ethanol, not ethanol + a bunch of other shit, and every biology lab I have ever been in or near will stock both 99.5% pure and 95% pure ethanol. The 190 proof stuff has basically no detectable impurities other than 5% water; the 200 proof stuff is anhydrous until you open the bottle. but might have a tiny tiny quantity of benzene so don't drink that one.
posted by nowonmai at 2:29 PM on November 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


I think poisoners choose radioactivity because its is much more inisidious- the effects are slower and therefore it would be much easier to get away with the crime, if the victims don't realize they've been poisoned until days or weeks after it happened. Scientists don't routinely check themselves Geiger counters, so it's not all that easy to detect unless there is a reason to be concerned.

I did notice that several of the poisoners and victims were Chinese, but since there are so many Chinese people working in academic labs, I don't think it has to do with Chinese culture, but perhaps that disgruntled and crazy scientists trend towards poisons rather than firearms when it comes to workplace violence.

Oh, and I have seen The Young Poisoner's Handbook and found it darkly hilarious.
posted by emd3737 at 2:32 PM on November 7, 2009


Denatured ethanol: I worked with a guy who drank it regularly. We didn't realize the extent of this until he quit and we stopped needing to replace the gallon jugs on a weekly basis.
posted by sciencegeek at 2:36 PM on November 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Comrade_robot, sorry if I sounded like "OMG Chinese ppl r crayZ amirite?" I was thinking that spiking somebody's food with typical-lab-inventory-amounts of radioisotopes is a ridiculous way to try to kill someone but might be a very effective "get the hell out of town" message when directed at someone who would read it that way. It just doesn't seem to fit with typical American culture, which is usually more overtly aggressive (threatening graffiti, smashed windows, dead animal on doorstep, etc). Then again, I dunno - we are talking about laboratory geeks here, and passive-aggressive is about as aggressive as we get ...

If somebody spiked my food with hot isotopes I'd see it as attempted murder by an incompetent crazy person, but I'm American. Perhaps the victims were supposed to see it not as attempted murder but as a warning: "Leave/back off/stop doing X before I really get pissed." I was wondering if some theme in Chinese culture would inspire somebody to use sub-lethal poison for sending a message: famous historical figures a la Lucrezia Borgia, classic literary works, popular movies, something like that. (And given how few people can get their hands on radioisotopes, it's effectively a signed message.) The Chinese approach to the better things in life (art, poetry, etc) is usually more subtle than the American approach, and I wonder if this is true of the bad things as well. Again, apologies if I sounded crass.
posted by Quietgal at 2:38 PM on November 7, 2009


I was wondering if some theme in Chinese culture

You're extrapolating a lot from one perpetrator. One.

The other Chinese people mentioned in those articles were victims, not perpetrators.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:37 PM on November 7, 2009


I heard from a former worker at a power station that the old boys used to boil their tea by briefly venting a bleed valve from the steam turbine into the mug. And then the old boys started dying.

Seems that the operators had started to put hydrazine as an oxygen scavenger in the closed loop of the cycle.
posted by scruss at 4:41 PM on November 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


Radioisotope as a poison makes sense if you hate the victim, want to harm them, but don't have any particular urgency to get rid of them. Science is a very mobile profession; if you hate a cow-orker you can poison them and continue for working with them for the remaining year or whatever that you're both in the same lab, knowing you have had the last laugh and you will be the other side of the world before they show symptoms. It's a total passive-aggressive murder attempt, and the cause of death will almost certainly never be traced to radioisotope poisoning, much less deliberate poisoning.

I will bet that it happens all the time and detected cases are the tip of an iceberg. It's why I don't write my name on the stuff I keep in the fridge in the break room.
posted by nowonmai at 4:53 PM on November 7, 2009


Polonium-210 seemed to work well at killing Alexander Litvinenko.

There's a difference both in amount and in the kind of radiation between that case and the P-32 cases above. 50mCi of Po-210 were used; by comparison, if you're ordering P-32 in 1mCi amounts, most institutions I've done radioactive work in will have you wearing a ring dosimeter to track your exposure. Just in mCi - focusing on how many disintigrations are happening per second, and ignoring other important things, like the energy of the particles emitted - there's a 100-fold difference between the amount of Po-210 used to kill Litvinenko and the .579mCi the researcher above was exposed to.

Secondly, there's a difference in the kind of radiation: Po-210 is an alpha emitter, while P-32 is a fairly strong beta emitter. This is to say that Po-210 emits mostly alpha particles, which don't travel very far (they can't make it through your skin) but which do a lot of damage when they are right next to something - as they are after ingestion. P-32 is mostly a beta emitter. Beta particles can travel further (and penetrate your skin at a scary distance!) but at the same distance (e.g., right next to your cells in your stomach or blood or bones) alpha particles will do more damage. So yes, of course there are of course amounts and types of radioactivity that will kill you pretty quickly, instead of increasing your long-term risk of cancer, but those are not the amounts and types of radioactivity you find in most research labs.

And given how few people can get their hands on radioisotopes, it's effectively a signed message.

With Po-210, yes, because there are vanishingly few sources. With P-32? I am sure there are at least a dozen labs doing biochem using P-32 at MIT, and more than that at bio-only research centers like the NIH. Multiple companies make it, and labs all over the world use it. If P-32 use is a signature, it says only "I have access to a biochem lab somewhere, like thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of people worldwide, and a hundred or more people at this institute alone. And I don't like you." Which is is not very specific, and thus not hugely useful for sending a message.
posted by ubersturm at 5:00 PM on November 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


A post-doc at UCSF put ethidium bromide in a tech's coffee (twice?). This says that charges where dropped because it wasn't enough to poison her. Seems like it should be illegal to give someone cancer though.
posted by 445supermag at 5:05 PM on November 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Of course,more traditional methods are also popular.
posted by nowonmai at 5:13 PM on November 7, 2009


Someone poisoned my Coca-Cola with Ethel Merman.

I got better, though.
posted by dr_dank at 5:29 PM on November 7, 2009


445supermag:
That was definitely a strange case, and his story seems to have changed since the incident that i first read about in the UCSF student paper. After failing to kill his lab technician with EtBr twice, he apparently became frustrated and told her what he was doing. Now, he says he wasn't trying to kill anyone.

The shocking thing shouldn't be that scientists either have episodes of stress-induced crazy, or attempt to murder their coworkers, as that is fairly common. It's that they don't understand the everyday chemicals that they're working with, fail, and not get away with it most of the time. I'm betting their other experiments don't go so well either...
posted by StrangerInAStrainedLand at 7:22 PM on November 7, 2009


Polonium-210 seemed to work well at killing Alexander Litvinenko.

Polonium 210 is surprisingly good for this kind of thing: High specific activity makes the mass of Po-210 required to kill someone really tiny, in the order of micrograms if I recall correctly. At 138 days, the half-life is short, but not too short: you have plenty of time to procure the stuff and poison your victim, but no traces will remain in the long term. It decays directly to stable lead 206, without producing any long-lived daughter products that could be used to identify it. It's a pure alpha emitter, so it doesn't produce any pesky gamma rays that would be a health hazard to the poisoner, or would make it easily detectable in transit. Furthermore, identifying the poison in the victim's system requires some pretty bothersome radiochemical techniques, giving the poisoner more time to escape: in the Litvinenko case, it took the authorities something like a couple of weeks to figure out what was actually killing him.

Scientists don't routinely check themselves Geiger counters, so it's not all that easy to detect unless there is a reason to be concerned.

In fact, they do: Anyone working with radioactivity normally has to wear a personal dosimeter, and labs working with the scarier stuff may have hand-and-foot or whole body monitors checking the staff every day as they go in and out of the lab, to prevent the spreading of contamination if something goes wrong. Of course, many isotopes, like Po-210 mentioned above, won't be detected by this kind of monitor, but in general a scientist working with radioactivity is a poor choice of victim as they are routinely monitored much better than the general population.
posted by Dr Dracator at 11:00 PM on November 7, 2009


I don't miss working in a lab. Just sayin'.

One recent-ish lab anxiety I had involved mutated shRNA vector constructs. It's a science-fiction sort of worry (as in, someone would have to really try hard to get that thing to work) but still, if it did, with the right target? Egads.
posted by NikitaNikita at 5:20 AM on November 8, 2009


A lot of you have terrifyingly detailed knowledge of poisons. What I'm trying to say is, if we ever happen to be at the same meetup, I preemptively apologize for any offense I may have caused in the past.
posted by spiderskull at 10:25 AM on November 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


Is there not the possibility that the sodium azide in this case formed naturally?
From mixing different flavours of non-dairy creamer together, perhaps.


Not really likely. The basic syntheses I know of require chemicals that aren't listed in any non-dairy-creamer ingredients list I can find. Furthermore, even if they were there, one synthesis requires a dry and very hot environment, and the other happens in liquid ammonia. Neither of those sets of conditions remotely resemble that of non-dairy creamer sitting in a coffee machine. A lot of reactions are pretty picky about the conditions they happen in, and room temperature water-based solutions with all kinds of unrelated molecules floating around aren't actually good conditions for producing many chemicals.

Plus, if it were something that happened spontaneously in the normal ingredients of the creamer (or the coffee, or what have you), where are all the other sodium azide poisoning incidents, either HMS or in other places with similar coffee machines? Why only this incident, in a place full of people who actually have access to sodium azide?
posted by ubersturm at 12:46 PM on November 8, 2009


When what you have is a supplies checkout card and you can check out 200 proof ethanol, you don't care that somebody (not you) is paying the tax for it to be unadulterated. Nowonmai, how likely am I to get cancer from the benzene that I must have been consuming? Assume a few mixed drinks a couple of evenings a week for a couple of years.
posted by Hello Dad, I'm in Jail at 1:49 AM on November 9, 2009


I can't answer that question and I doubt anybody can. The key phrase is "may contain benzene" - which implies "may not contain benzene" as well. Without having samples to analyse we don't know if there was more benzene in the ethanol or the mixer. I would doubt the increased risk would be as bad as if you did something really dumb, like smoking cigarettes, but it was an avoidable risk that you didn't avoid. Like so many of the things we do in life!
posted by nowonmai at 9:48 AM on November 9, 2009


Here's where I kick in my own sodium azide-related danger story. This past summer, some of my fellow grad students in my department were doing a round-the-clock water sampling in a nearby river, and using sodium azide as part of the protocol. They had a cooler of ice to store their samples and reagents, and at some point while they otherwise occupied, someone swiped 10 vials of solution. The students were panicked, and we still don't know what exactly happened to the vials.

In the lab, we know never to drink anything, at all. Hopefully someone else didn't learn that lesson the hard way.
posted by dnesan at 10:53 AM on November 9, 2009


Hey wait a sec, this was USP ethanol. I'm less worried about it now than I was a couple of days ago. Probably still not the smartest thing I ever did, but not the dumbest either.
posted by Hello Dad, I'm in Jail at 6:56 AM on November 13, 2009


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