Accident hospitalizes Wetterhahn

by Erin Loback | 2/24/97 6:00am

Chemistry Professor and former Acting Dean of the Faculty Karen Wetterhahn is in serious condition at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center with mercury poisoning most likely caused by exposure to the lethal metal during a research project at the College.

A DHMC administrative coordinator, speaking on the condition that she not be named, confirmed to The Dartmouth that Wetterhahn has been unable to see, hear, walk or talk for several weeks.

College Director of Public Affairs Laurel Stavis said Wetterhahn first noticed some difficulties with her balance a few weeks ago, then experienced numbness in her fingers and diminished hearing and sight.

Wetterhahn went to see a doctor and was diagnosed with mercury poisoning at the end of January, and her condition worsened quickly thereafter.

Stavis said DHMC doctors think dimethyl mercury, which Wetterhahn had used for some experiments in her Burke Laboratory research space, could be involved in her poisoning.

"This is an extremely rare event in the world's history," Chemistry Department Chair John Winn said. "This was a tragic accidental exposure."

Winn said the particular compound of dimethyl mercury is more hazardous than other mercury compounds because it can be absorbed into the skin.

Doctors at DHMC have not have not yet discovered the timing of Wetterhahn's exposure to dimethyl mercury, nor where or how the exposure occurred, Stavis said. She said it is unclear whether the exposure occurred over time or in one instance.

Winn said Wetterhahn's research area is in the biochemistry of toxic metals. She began working on a research project with dimethyl mercury to study the effects of toxic metals on the human body with a $7 million grant she won from the National Institute for Environmental Health Services in 1995.

According to Winn, she was working in her Burke laboratory in August.

"From what we know now, and the details are not crystal clear, we believe the exposure that led to her current instance probably did happen in August at Dartmouth," Winn said.

"A very small amount of this stuff can lead to serious problems," he added. "It is common that months pass before the symptoms appear."

Winn said the College's environmental health and safety office immediately inspected Wetterhahn's laboratory in Burke upon her diagnosis.

Director of Environmental Health and Safety Michael Blayney said both air and surface tests were performed in the laboratory.

Stavis said no contamination was found in the lab, and to rule out the possibility of inadvertent contamination of her home and office, they were also tested and found uncontaminated.

Medical evaluations performed on Wetterhahn's family and lab associates were also negative, Stavis said.

"The tragedy is localized with ... Wetterhahn -- all mercury compounds she was working with were removed within two days of her diagnosis," Winn said. "There is no one else who has been affected, it is not contagious, [and there is] no possibility for further contact."

Blayney said Wetterhahn's exposure was "an unusual situation," and he said he does not think anything like it has occurred in a Dartmouth laboratory before.

Wetterhahn served as acting dean of the faculty from January to June 1995 when College President James Freedman was on sabbatical and Dean of the Faculty James Wright served as acting president. She was the first female dean of the faculty.

She has also served as an associate dean in both the sciences and graduate studies.

Wetterhahn, the first female professor in the chemistry department, co-founded the Women in Science Project in 1990 to encourage more women to explore the sciences.