Six researchers with the Harvard Medical School were found poisoned after they took coffee from the office coffee-maker. Five of them were released from the hospital the same day. One was held overnight, Boston Herald said. The poisoning has been traced to sodium azide that had been mixed with the coffee.
Though the incident took place in August last, reports are coming out only now, apparently after the toxicology experts confirmed poisoning.
Sodium azide is "a rapidly acting, potentially deadly chemical that exists as an odorless white solid," according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, and when mixed with water, it changes rapidly to a toxic gas.
The six workers all drank coffee from the same coffee maker in the New Research Building. One of them, Matteo Iannacone, a postdoctoral fellow, said that when he took a sip of the coffee, he noticed that it tasted weird. Within seconds, he and the others who had sipped the coffee began to have tachycardia (fast heart rate), an increase in blood pressure, sweating, and one of them even fainted. They were rushed to emergency room. Mercifully nothing serious happened.
The coffee maker was located on a floor where basic research on immune systems is conducted, some of it on mice, it is reported.
Sodium azide is commonly used as a preservative in biomedical research. Dr. Michael Greenberg, the president of the American Academy of Clinical Toxicology states that the chemical's use as a poison is "atypical'. He says that in his career he has not seen any homicidal use of sodium azide, but he also goes on that he remain very suspicious that the chemical did indeed end up in a coffee pot by accident. Dr. Greenberg tells Newsweek that "it's probably not something that's going to naturally turn up in a coffee maker.'
It is not known as yet who the culprits are, but the authorities are beefing up security in the laboratory buildings.
"We're looking at this situation very carefully and reviewing the security precautions," David Cameron, a spokesman for the Boston-based medical school, told Bloomberg News.
The school is in the process of installing additional closed-circuit TV cameras, he said.
The last known use of sodium azide as a poisoning was in a Japanese Kyoto hospital where the coffee and green tea was laced with the chemical.