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Spate of cyanide suicides sparks safety review

A prominent cancer research center is reviewing how it handles and tracks lab chemicals after a worker there apparently committed suicide using cyanide.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A prominent cancer research center is reviewing how it handles and tracks lab chemicals after a worker there apparently committed suicide using cyanide. It's the third Massachusetts case in six months in which an employee with access to lab chemicals is suspected of using cyanide taken from the workplace to commit suicide.

Boston police on Tuesday discovered 72-year-old Olga Tretyakov, an employee at Dana Farber Cancer Institute, after her husband called to report that she might have killed herself with cyanide. She died later at a hospital.

Boston police were investigating whether Tretyakov, a research technician, took the cyanide on purpose and got it at work. Although that's still unknown, Dana Farber spokesman Bill Schaller said Wednesday that the institute was reviewing lab safety practices.

"We are reviewing our procedures and the circumstances surrounding this incident," Schaller said. He declined to elaborate.

Orange juice
In September, a Northeastern University lab worker killed herself by drinking cyanide in orange juice. In November, a scientist killed himself with cyanide in Westborough after killing his wife.

The toxicity of cyanide compounds is well-known; it's been used in gas chamber executions. But cyanide is also used in the mining industry and metals treatment and can be combined with other chemicals to make products such as superglue.

Academic labs would have cyanide on hand for research, said Russ Phifer, former chairman of the committee on chemical safety for the American Chemical Society.

Phifer said that the apparent cyanide suicides in Massachusetts over such a short time were coincidental, and that it's not practical to completely prevent access to cyanide or other highly poisonous materials commonly found in labs.

"(Cyanide) is highly regulated, but not in terms of laboratory use in small scale. It's just not," he said. "It would take a complete change in safety culture."

That doesn't mean steps can't be taken to make the deadly substance more difficult for people to take home, he said.

"Most labs do secure certain chemicals, but they're more likely to be concerned about explosive or highly reactive chemicals than they are about toxics, and maybe that's something that needs to change," he said.

On Tuesday, two residents of the Brighton neighborhood where Tretyakov lived, as well as three police officers and four firefighters who responded to the scene, were taken to a hospital to be sure they hadn't been exposed to the cyanide.

Tretyakov had left a note in Russian mentioning the cyanide and warning family members to be careful, Steve MacDonald, a spokesman for the Boston Fire Department, told The Boston Globe.

In a statement, Dana Farber said Tretyakov was "a member of our research community for more than 20 years, and we are deeply saddened by this loss."

"We are working closely with the Boston police to learn more about the circumstances of her death," the statement said.

Northeastern University lab technician Emily Staupe committed suicide at her Milford home in September by drinking a mixture of cyanide and orange juice. The 30-year-old Staupe had access to cyanide through her job, and her death prompted Northeastern to review how it handles dangerous substances.

Last month, the Worcester County district attorney's office said an autopsy of 43-year-old Richard "Todd" Bibart showed he had died of "intentional ingestion of cyanide" in November after killing his wife, Rebecca, in their Westborough home. The couple was in the midst of a contentious divorce.

Authorities said Bibart was a "professional scientist" with "the ability to obtain cyanide," though they didn't give specifics.