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Poisoning Sends Six to Hospital

By Naveen N. Srivatsa, Crimson Staff Writer

CORRECTION APPENDED

Six Harvard Medical School researchers were poisoned in August after drinking contaminated coffee, according to a memorandum released by HMS officials last Friday.

Tainted coffee sent the six researchers to Beth Israel Deaconness Medical Center on August 26 with symptoms ranging from dizziness and fainting to ringing in the ears, according to the Associated Press.

HMS spokesman David J. Cameron said that contracted toxicologists found sodium azide, a chemical used in air bags and laboratory preservatives, in samples of the victims’ coffee and in the water tank of a coffee machine in the New Research Building in Boston.

The memo, which was authored by HMS Executive Dean of Administration Daniel G. Ennis and Associate Dean for Physical Planning and Facilities Richard M. Shea, confirmed the presence of sodium azide in the coffee machine.

Mabel P. Duyao, director of research at the HMS Pathology Department, said that sodium azide is used in laboratories—including the 8th floor pathology lab at the New Research Building—to protect solutions from bacteria and other microorganisms.

According to Cameron, how the chemical wound up in the machine is still under investigation by the Harvard University Police Department and that they have yet to form a concrete theory about what happened.

One victim told the Boston Herald that they believed the poisoning was not an accident. Duyao said that such a theory cannot be ruled out, and that the main focus of the police investigation was to determine whether there was a motive behind the incident.

“We don’t know if it was accidental or if it was done out of malice,” she said. “That’s really what we’re trying to get out of this investigation.”

Since the August incident, additional cameras have been installed in the pathology lab, the HMS memo states.

According to Duyao, the first researcher checked into Beth Israel around 9 a.m., and all six were admitted to the hospital by 4 p.m. Five of the six were released the same day, and the sixth checked out the following morning.

HMS refused to release names or details about the affected researchers, but The Herald identified two of the six victims, doctoral student Lidia Bosurgi and research fellow Matteo Iannacone. Both refused to speak with The Herald last week, citing a request from Harvard that they refrain from media interviews.

Cameron said that this restriction was intended to give HMS time to contact all of the victims and that as of last Friday, the six were free to talk to the press.

“When the chemical compound or agent was identified, HMS leadership wanted to talk to each victim individually and tell them what it was,” Cameron said. “When they talked to [the victims], they said, ‘Until we talk to each of the six people individually, please don’t talk to anyone about the chemical.’”

HUPD spokesman Steven G. Catalano declined to comment. Jake Wark, a spokesman for Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, said that the office was aware of the case but that no charges have been filed.

—Staff writer Naveen N. Srivatsa can be reached at srivatsa@fas.harvard.edu.

CORRECTION

An earlier version of the Oct. 26 news article "Poisoning Sends Six to Hospital" gave an incorrect middle initial for a HUPD spokesman. The spokesman's name is Steven G. Catalano, not Steven J. Catalano.

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CrimeHarvard Medical School