Archive for Thursday, November 5, 2009

KU graduate student in critical but stable condition after chemical contamination

A Kansas University graduate student was hospitalized with life-threatening injuries Thursday after accidentally ingesting a toxic chemical while working in a university lab, KU officials said.

November 5, 2009, 8:05 a.m. Updated November 5, 2009, 4:57 p.m.


KU investigates toxic chemical incident

KU officials discuss the events of Thursday morning, after being notified of a possible chemical spill in Malott Hall. Enlarge video

A Kansas University graduate student was hospitalized with life-threatening injuries Thursday after accidentally ingesting a toxic chemical while working in a university lab, KU officials said.

University officials would not identify the student, who they said suffered cardiovascular and breathing problems and was in critical but stable condition at Lawrence Memorial Hospital.

Chris Keary, assistant KU police chief, said investigators were working to figure out exactly how the student ingested sodium azide, a toxic chemical commonly used in different areas of research.

“He was in intensive care and was able to communicate with us enough to give us some of the basic information,” Keary said. “The doctors were concerned for his well-being and our ability to talk to him and how that was affecting his well-being, so we only had a limited amount of time and information to get from him.”

The student was working in a lab about 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. Wednesday on the fifth floor of Malott Hall, 1251 Wescoe Hall Drive, the university said. He did not get sick until after he got home.

After learning about the illness around 2:30 a.m. Thursday, KU police evacuated Malott Hall and the connecting Haworth Hall, 1200 Sunnyside Ave., until city fire and university investigators determined that the chemical had not been spilled and that the lab and building were safe for others to occupy. The building was reopened about 5 a.m., Keary said.

The university used its emergency alert system to notify students, faculty and staff by text message and e-mail of the incident before classes began Thursday, said Lynn Bretz, university spokeswoman.

“We didn’t want to have any confusion about whether or not Haworth or Malott halls were safe to enter,” Bretz said. “We didn’t want any confusion about whether or not there had been a chemical spill, so the best way to do that was to be proactive and basically let everybody know.”

Mike Russell, director of the KU Environment Health & Safety office, said the odorless chemical involved in the situation looks like table salt. He said, according to protocol, the chemical should be handled with gloves, under a fume hood and with a laboratory spatula.

“It doesn’t take a lot of this material to cause adverse health reactions,” Russell said. “How much he may or may not have come into contact with, we cannot speculate at this time.”

Keary said no foul play was suspected and that investigators were waiting to talk to the student more to figure out how exactly he ingested the chemical.

“We’re concerned about his health No. 1, getting him healed and back to normal life,” Russell said.


Vinny1 6 years ago

Why exactly did this incident require a mass emergency text from KU? Dumb.

Bunny_Hotcakes 6 years ago

@Vinny, rumor control is my best guess.

I hope he recovers swiftly. That's scary stuff.

Kirk Larson 6 years ago

Vin, For a while the building was evacuated. The notice was for the couple thousand students, faculty, and staff who work and have class there to stay the heck out.

MD, Speaking as a former lab safety officer, you shouldn't have your burrito in the lab in the first place, let alone setting it on a lab bench. (Mmm, vegan)

Andrew Kong 6 years ago

Best wishes for the student.

Sodium azide is the same chemical that poisoned some Harvard lab workers several months ago:

Leslie Swearingen 6 years ago

I do hope there will be more about this. "What the long-term health effects may be Survivors of serious sodium azide poisoning may have heart and brain damage." This is very interesting stuff used for such a variety of things from agriculture to explosives. It is also a preservative used in labs. I just put this in, in case someone did not click on the link. Hermione mode.

mom_of_three 6 years ago

I would rather be alerted than not, so I wouldn't worry about what happened at Malott.

notjustastudent 6 years ago

Text message was a good call- besides the safety thing, there'a nothing more annoying than hauling yourself out of bed, hiking up to campus, only to find a note on the door telling you class is cancelled...

lounger 6 years ago

I hope the student is o.k.. Maybe this will change procedures.

Boeing 6 years ago

The text wasn't about staying the heck out; in fact, it specifically said the building was safe to enter...

mom_of_three 6 years ago

Well, would you want to be in Wescoe, Haworth, Budig or Anschutz and wonder why the Malott was being evacuated? I would worry about why it was being evacuated and if I was safe. The text message system lets everyone know, and it avoids those nasty rumors.

pace 6 years ago

I hope the student is ok. My prayers for the student, the family and friends.

Leslie Swearingen 6 years ago

Multi, I thought your comment was very funny and not out of place at all. Reminds me of those scenes in movies where someone is conducting an autopsy, eating a sandwich and they put it down on top of the corpse. Hey, it happens, it says so right in Wikipedia.

Kirk Larson 6 years ago

MD, Didn't mean to come on too strong. Where I worked dealing in Hazardous Waste once, we would often jibe that the people least qualified to handle dangerous chemicals... are chemists. Seriously, I have seen people eating in labs who know better. You just want to headslap them sometimes.

gccs14r 6 years ago

Hope it was accidental and not malicious.

I have to say I've used a 50ml beaker to get a drink of water, but the beaker was fresh out of the autoclave and filled directly from the distilled water supply, then put into the dirty glassware area immediately afterward. No way would I grab a random piece of lab glassware to get a drink of water, nor would I segregate a human-contaminated piece of glassware for re-use.

hawk_chalk 6 years ago

gccs14r- I call BS, even if you did it would be more like a shot instead of a drink. I hope this person gets better, I just wish KU would be in the news more often for good things instead of the ridiculous events that have been happening this year.

alchemist 6 years ago

actually the safety people are wrong. Sodium azide should NOT be handled with a laboratory spatula. Sodium azide can become even more explosive in the presence of metal shavings. Therefore the proper handling of this chemical for weighing would use a teflon spatula or the back end of a glass pipette. The chemical could have been ingested in it's more toxic gaseous form (HN3) if a septum was removed from the flask in which it was formed and the hood was not working properly and caused him to breathe gas/fumes. This is much more likely to occur than eating or drinking in a organic lab. Especially with KU's hoods, which in my experience are more often/broken working inefiiciently than fixed/working correctly. Part of this is due to their attempts to save money by decreasing air flow, and the design of the hoods in general with the large sash rather than the panel sashes more common in industry.

gccs14r 6 years ago


Why would I BS about something like that? I think I did it all of twice, and it was 16-17 years ago. You're right, it's not much water, but boy, was it good.

walleye9898 6 years ago


The safety people aren't necessarily wrong related to the spatula. I would agree with you that you shouldn't use a metal spatula due to "potential formation" of metal azides and that teflon or glass would be better. However, in the article line, they didn't quote the safety person (No quotations marks) so we don't know if there was the word "appropriate" ahead of lab spatula.

Related to your middle part about toxic gaseous form, possibility but, if he breathes in toxic gas/fume then it wouldn't be ingestion (your word) but rather inhalation.

If you read the KU release it is "believed" accidental ingestion but not a given. Nothing in any release indicates he was eating or drinking in the lab.

As far as fume hoods, maybe you should talk to the safety folks about the extensive testing and inspection they put each fume hood through on a routine basis to make sure they are working correctly. Panel sashes may or may not be appropriate at all times or the best. I can tell you from my experience all their fume hoods are setup based on safety first and in most instances the hoods tend exhaust too much air which can cause safety problems and also be energy wasters.

gsxr600 6 years ago

The building was reopened at 5am.... Do you honestly think any KU student would know about what happened going to class at 8am or even later in the day? Absolutely not. They would find out about it in a press release or in the UDK the next day. Sorry, but this was an accident related to an individual and doesn't have any relation to the whole student body, especially if everything was dealt with at 5am.

Yes I was rudely awoken at 7am this morning for this nonsense.

Ricky_Vaughn 6 years ago

Vinny wins the "Biggest Jerk of the Day" award.

hawk_chalk 6 years ago

gccs14r, Just messing with you, I've heard all kinds of stories from back in the day. Mouth pipettes, smoking every where etc....

I checked some news sources to see if KU made any national headlines only to find out about the tragedy at Ft. Hood- which is not the way I wanted KU to stay out of the headlines.

Evan Ridenour 6 years ago

"Cappy (Anonymous) says…

MD, Didn't mean to come on too strong. Where I worked dealing in Hazardous Waste once, we would often jibe that the people least qualified to handle dangerous chemicals… are chemists. Seriously, I have seen people eating in labs who know better. You just want to headslap them sometimes."

So very true.

I think this is fairly common in any profession though. The more comfortable in an environment we get the more careless we can become. I actually have seen someone make the base component of pepper spray without wearing gloves and without decontaminating his hands before leaving the lab... guess what happened to his face minutes later...? :)

somebodynew 6 years ago

OK, Jkealing - I can't hold back any longer.

First, my thoughts are with the student and his family and friends.

But, Just what are LJW guidlines for "Breaking News" ?? To me this was breaking news this morning, but it has stayed up ALL day as such. Heck, it wasn't even updated since over 2 hours ago. Did you all go to sleep or something???

And yes, why no Breaking News on the Ft. Hood situation??

KSShy1 6 years ago

I used to work there. I had an employee that used to go into the lab and rinse out their coffee cup in the lab sink. Then go pour a cup of coffee in it. Sounds harmless.....but could be deadly. This employee was taken aside and counseled. Sometimes people just don't think about the whole picture of what they are doing. We don't know how this student ingested the chemical but pray they will recover fully.

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