Experts discount ‘accident’ theory in Harvard coffee poisoning

By | October 28, 2009

A leading toxicologist believes the chances are slim that six lab workers at Harvard University Medical School were poisoned by accident.

“An accident? Sodium azide is a poison,” said David M. Benjamin, a toxicologist and Chestnut Hill-based clinical pharmacologist. “Absolutely not.”

The Herald reported yesterday that six scientists and students at the New Research Building in Boston’s Longwood Medical area were mysteriously poisoned after drinking from a communal, single-serve coffee machine on the eighth floor near their pathology lab on Aug. 26. Seconds later all six reported symptoms including dizziness and low blood pressure and were taken to Israel Deaconess Medical Center for treatment.

“Could it have gotten in the coffee machine inadvertantly? Absolutely not,” Benjamin said of the compound, an odorless white solid used in labs as a preservative. “It could be considered an attempted murder or assault.”

Harvard did not make the poisoning public until after repeated inquiries from the Herald. The university continued to skirt questions yesterday, with a spokesman referring inquiries to Harvard police, and the police referring questions back to the spokesman.

“This is crazy,” said a Harvard Medical School researcher who did not want to be identified. “I don’t know why it would take two months to announce this.”

Although he is not privy to the investigation, medical school spokesman David Cameron said, “What I know at this point in time is that all options and potential avenues for how this could have happened are being very thoroughly and intensely investigated.”

The same substance was used in a string of coffee and tea poisoning incidents in Japan a decade ago. In one incident, the chief internist of a Kyoto hospital was found guilty of lacing the green tea ingested by seven fellow doctors with sodium azide.

via Experts discount ‘accident’ theory in Harvard coffee poisoning –

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From the MSDS it sounds like all five are lucky to have survived this attack:

May cause irritation to the respiratory tract and mucous membranes, sore throat, coughing, dizziness, shortness of breath, and fainting. May be absorbed through inhalation. Symptoms may parallel ingestion.
Highly Toxic! May cause breathlessness, pulmonary edema and rapid heart beat within 5 minutes. Nausea, vomiting, headache, restlessness, and diarrhea may occur within 15 minutes. Other symptoms may include low blood pressure, abnormal breathing, reduced body temperature, reduced body pH, convulsions, collapse and death.
Skin Contact:
Highly Toxic! Causes irritation, redness, and pain. May be absorbed through the skin; symptoms may parallel ingestion.
Eye Contact:
Causes irritation, redness, pain, and blurred vision.

Other news at Harvard, published Wed, Oct 28, 2009

Madoff Investor Found Dead In Pool

Jeffry M. Picower, an education philanthropist who invested billions in Bernard L. Madoff’s $50 billion Ponzi scheme, was found dead in his swimming pool after suffering a heart attack last Sunday—less than a year after his foundation pulled the plug on millions of dollars in promised funding for diabetes research at the Harvard Medical School and its affiliated hospitals.  – The Harvard Crimson

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