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Harvard Medical School: 6 lab workers sickened by poisoned coffee - possibly intentionally

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  • Harvard Medical School: 6 lab workers sickened by poisoned coffee - possibly intentionally

    http://www.promedmail.org/pls/otn/f?..._ID:1000,79825

    Archive Number 20091027.3712
    Published Date 27-OCT-2009
    Subject PRO/EDR> Sodium azide, coffee - USA: (MA)

    SODIUM AZIDE, COFFEE - USA: (MASSACHUSETTS)
    *******************************************
    A ProMED-mail post
    <http://www.promedmail.org>
    ProMED-mail is a program of the
    International Society for Infectious Diseases
    <http://www.isid.org>

    [1]
    Date: Sun 25 Oct 2009
    Source: Boston Herald [edited]
    <http://www.bostonherald.com/news/regional/view.bg?articleid=1207102>


    Poisoning at Harvard: 6 lab workers sickened by coffee
    ------------------------------------------------------
    Harvard University Medical School is locking down its New Research
    Building, installing new surveillance cameras and imposing tighter
    security after researchers in the pathology department of the Boston
    building drank poisoned coffee and were hospitalized.

    The 6 victims -- a group of scientists and students at Harvard
    Medical School -- used a communal, single-serve coffee machine on the
    8th floor near their pathology lab 26 Aug 2009
    , according to an
    internal memo. Seconds later all 6 reported symptoms such as
    dizziness and low blood pressure. One victim's ears were ringing and
    another passed out.


    All 6 were taken to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, where they
    were treated and released. One was held overnight for observation.
    The coffee maker was removed for testing, a Harvard spokesman told
    the Herald.

    Harvard University Police, as well as Boston police and fire units,
    responded to the poisoning, and immediate testing by hazardous
    material crews found no traces of poison. But a later test revealed
    that the presence of sodium azide, a common preservative used in
    labs, is what sickened the researchers, an internal Harvard memo
    released Friday [23 Oct 2009] reads.


    Sodium azide is listed as a 'potentially deadly chemical that exists
    as an odorless white solid' by the federal government.

    "While we do not yet know how the incident occurred, we have recently
    learned that sodium azide ... was present in the coffee consumed by
    the 6 employees," the Friday memo [23 Oct 2009] reads. "As the
    investigation continues, we are being prudent and taking additional
    precautionary measures to ensure the well-being of our community."

    One of the victims, contacted and their identity confirmed by the
    Herald, said they were told by the university not to speak about the
    incident. Privately, however, they said they do not feel it was an
    accident, though they could not say why someone would target that
    group.

    The researchers all work in the Harvard Medical School's pathology
    department using mice to investigate how diseases interact with the
    immune system.

    Harvard spokesman David Cameron refused to discuss the poisoning, but
    said no student or employee has been disciplined. The Suffolk
    District Attorney's Office said it was not aware of the incident, and
    the Boston Police Department is not investigating.

    According to the internal memo, the investigation includes the
    federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration as well as the
    Boston Public Health Commission. The Health Commission told the
    Herald they were called by Harvard to discuss best practices and
    policy looking ahead.

    The memo, written by Daniel G Ennis, executive dean for
    administration, and Richard M Shea, associate dean for physical
    planning and facilities, does not say whether the poisoning was
    accidental or intentional. But the university drafted a tough new
    security plan to make sure it doesn't happen again.

    "We are in the process of installing additional security cameras
    throughout our buildings, and we are strengthening the security
    systems that manage access to the laboratories during both normal
    business hours and off hours," the memo states.

    [Byline: Adam Smith, O'Ryan Johnson]

    --
    Communicated by:
    Greg Koblentz
    <gkoblentz@gmail.com>

    ******
    [2]
    Date: Sun 25 Oct 2009
    Source: TheBostonChannel.com [edited]
    <http://www.thebostonchannel.com/news/21421216/detail.html>


    Harvard tightening security after 6 poisoned
    --------------------------------------------
    Harvard University Medical School will increase security and install
    new video cameras at its laboratories this week [week of 26 Oct 2009]
    as police work to determine whether 6 people were intentionally
    poisoned at a research building.

    The scientists and students fell ill on 26 Aug 2009 after consuming a
    potentially lethal chemical that was present in their coffee,
    according to an internal memo sent to medical school students on
    Friday [23 Oct 2009].

    All 6 people had used a single-serve coffee machine near their
    pathology lab at Harvard's New Research Building to prepare the
    coffee, and all later reported dizziness and low blood pressure.
    Testing revealed the presence of sodium azide, a common preservative,
    in the coffee, the memo said. Sodium azide is an odorless white
    solid, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

    One person became unconscious. All 6 were taken to Beth Israel
    Deaconess Medical Center for treatment. None suffered long-term
    consequences from the poisoning. The university said it does not know
    if the poisoning was deliberate or accidental. "While we do not yet
    know how the incident occurred, we have recently learned that sodium
    azide ... was present in the coffee consumed by the 6 employees," the
    memo reads.

    Many workers and students who frequent the building said they had not
    yet heard about the incident. "I'm actually kind of surprised," one
    said.

    Swallowing the chemical can cause rapid breathing, dizziness, and
    nausea, according to the CDC.


    The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the
    Boston Public Health Commission are investigating.

    "We are in the process of installing additional security cameras
    throughout our buildings, and we are strengthening the security
    systems that manage access to the laboratories during both normal
    business hours and off hours," the Harvard memo said.

    --
    Communicated by:
    ProMED-mail
    <promed@promedmail.org>

    [Sodium azide is a rapidly acting, potentially deadly chemical that
    exists as an odorless white solid. When it is mixed with water or an
    acid, sodium azide changes rapidly to a toxic gas with a pungent
    (sharp) odor. It also changes into a toxic gas when it comes in
    contact with solid metals (for example, when it is poured into a
    drain pipe containing lead or copper). The odor of the gas may not be
    sharp enough, however, to give people sufficient warning of the
    danger.

    Sodium azide is best known as the chemical found in automobile
    airbags. An electrical charge triggered by automobile impact causes
    sodium azide to explode and release nitrogen gas inside the airbag.

    Sodium azide is used as a chemical preservative in hospitals and
    laboratories. Accidents have occurred in these settings. In one case,
    sodium azide was poured into a drain, where it exploded and the toxic
    gas was inhaled.

    Sodium azide is used in agriculture (farming) for pest control. It is
    also used in detonators and other explosives.

    Following release of sodium azide into water, exposure could occur
    through drinking the contaminated water or by ingestion of
    contaminate food. Inhalation exposure may occur through dust or gas.
    Contact with skin will also cause symptoms. People exposed to a small
    amount of sodium azide by inhalation, absorption, or consumption may
    have some or all of the following symptoms within minutes: rapid
    breathing, restlessness, dizziness, weakness, headache, nausea and
    vomiting, rapid heart rate, red eyes (gas or dust exposure), clear
    drainage from the nose (gas or dust exposure), cough (gas or dust
    exposure), skin burns and blisters (explosion or direct skin
    contact). Exposure to a large amount of sodium azide by any route may
    cause these other health effects as well: convulsions, low blood
    pressure, slow heart rate, loss of consciousness, lung injury, and
    respiratory failure leading to death. Showing these signs and
    symptoms does not necessarily mean that a person has been exposed to
    sodium azide as other conditions and diseases can produce the same
    clinical signs and symptoms. Survivors of serious sodium azide
    poisoning may have heart and brain damage.

    What is more intriguing is that the University successfully kept a
    lid on this exposure on 26 Aug 2009 until now (25 Oct 2009). While
    their caution is to be appreciated, as well as the respect for the
    victims, this same incident could have/may have/ occurred at other
    institutions and they should be aware of such incidents. There are
    communication channels between the various universities in the
    nation, but there may have been other institutions other than
    universities that were not aware of the incident and should have been.

    It would be extremely unusual for this product to be in only one
    coffee pot or container of coffee if it were not an intentional
    incident.


    Portions of this comment have been extracted from
    <http://www.bt.cdc.gov/agent/sodiumazide/basics/facts.asp> - Mod.TG]

    [The New England state of Massachusetts can be located on the
    HealthMap/ProMED-mail interactive map of the US at
    <http://healthmap.org/r/00XE>. - Sr.Tech.Ed.MJ]
    ...................................sb/tg/mj/lm

  • #2
    Re: Harvard Medical School: 6 lab workers sickened by poisoned coffee - possibly intentionally

    As a little side note. ProMED mail is based at Harvard University.

    Comment


    • #3
      Re: Harvard Medical School: 6 lab workers sickened by poisoned coffee - possibly intentionally

      Note the red text in the article above. This is almost certainly an intentional poisoning, although there are likely many suspects at this time (rival scientist? political protesters? random nut jobs?).

      Also note that this incident occurred two months ago. There may have been other related incidents since then, and if there have, ProMed will likely be receiving many emails shortly.

      Comment


      • #4
        Re: Harvard Medical School: 6 lab workers sickened by poisoned coffee - possibly intentionally

        http://www.promedmail.org/pls/otn/f?..._ID:1000,81098

        Archive Number 20100128.0301
        Published Date 28-JAN-2010
        Subject PRO/EDR> Sodium azide, coffee - USA: (MA)


        SODIUM AZIDE, COFFEE - USA: (MASSACHUSETTS)
        *******************************************
        A ProMED-mail post
        <http://www.promedmail.org>
        ProMED-mail is a program of the
        International Society for Infectious Diseases
        <http://www.isid.org>

        Date: Tue 26 Jan 2009
        Source: WBZ TV [edited]
        <http://wbztv.com/local/harvard.university.poisoning.2.1449817.html>


        Harvard University police have ended the "active phase" of an
        investigation into the possible poisoning of 6 medical school
        researchers without identifying a suspect.

        The university stated in a memo to faculty and staff that campus
        police interviewed about 150 people during their investigation into
        the 26 Aug 2009 incident, but the case will no longer be pursued,
        even though it is "still officially open," The Boston Herald reports.

        The 6 people hospitalized over the summer [2009] allegedly drank
        tainted coffee.


        One of the researchers poisoned said the coffee came from a
        single-serve espresso machine in a common area on the 8th floor of
        the Harvard Medical School New Research Building. "It tasted weird.
        It had a metallic taste...I felt a sudden drop in blood pressure. I
        was feeling like I was going to faint," [the researcher] told WBZ
        back in September [2009], adding he and his colleagues were told that
        toxicology tests showed the coffee contained sodium azide, a
        preservative used in labs that is potentially deadly. [He] said it's
        unlikely the poisoning was accidental, but says he has no idea who
        did it or why.

        Sodium azide is a toxic, but common preservative used in school labs.

        A Harvard Medical School post doctoral fellow says the chemical does
        not leave certain areas, and it would never find its way into a
        coffee maker
        . However, the Centers for Disease Control says accidents
        involving the chemical have happened in lab settings.

        In one case, sodium azide was poured into a drain where it exploded
        when it contacted metal and the toxic gas was inhaled.

        --
        Communicated by:
        ProMED-mail
        <promed@promedmail.org>

        [If indeed all of the 6 poisoned individuals prepared and drank their
        coffee from a single serve espresso style coffee maker, then one
        wonders if the sodium azide was in the sugar or the powdered creamer.
        If this single serve coffee maker is like many of the new single
        serve types for homes, then many have a water reservoir. Could it
        have been in the water reservoir?

        I am not sure I would be drinking something that didn't taste right
        and had a metallic taste.


        Readers are encouraged to learn more about sodium azide by reading
        the moderator's comments in ProMED-mail post 20091027.3712. - Mod.TG]

        [see also:
        Sodium azide, coffee - USA: (MA) 20091027.3712]
        ...................................tg/mj/dk

        Comment

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