This is awful, sad, but what else does it tell us?
A historic San Francisco Bay Area hotel and social club has been evacuated after a resident used a toxic chemical to commit suicide in her room.
Police spokesman Ethell Wilson says the 80-year-old woman used sodium azide to kill herself Tuesday in her apartment on the third floor of the landmark Berkeley City Club.
She left a warning note.
In an update to that story, more was discovered about her identity.
Sydney Kustu was a professor emerita in plant and microbial biology at University of California’s College of Natural Resources and a member of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences. She lived in an apartment there. It was her 71st birthday.
In the fall of 2009, she told Breakthrough magazine, a publication of the College of Natural Resources, that science sustained and gratified her.
“I do science because at one time it was forbidden fruit,” Kustu told the magazine. “When I was a child, men had professions; women were assistants. As a young woman I developed a passion for understanding how cells replicate themselves, how they integrate their parts into a self-reproducing whole.”
The CDC describes sodium azide as a white solid that turns into a toxic gas (hydrazoic acid) when mixed with water or acid (H+) It is used in auto airbags and airplane escape chutes since it creates the gas so quickly. It is not known to be toxic from that use.
It affect the cardivascular system. In fatal doses, the person suffers rapid loss of consciousness, possibly coma with hyporeflexia and metabolic acidosis. [Source]
Honestly, when I heard this story, I wondered if she had medical issues and if there weren’t some easier way for people to take their own lives without endangering others if that’s their decision. This was a way she knew would work. There is no mention of where she obtained the chemical. Very sad.
It’s unclear if they can do an autopsy because of the exposure. Suicides from it are rare. Death usually occurs rapidly.
Addition: I was very moved by this story. After I posted it, I received comments such as: “she should have known better”, “why would someone educated do this”, both of which I found discordant. I also heard from several who noted that this situation was really NOT hazardous to others and she never meant to hurt anyone. I would believe that is true. I agree she must have been in deep despair. The story touched me because I respect people’s decisions to take their own lives. As noted in the comments, she lived an impressively full life and was a well-respected contributor to society. I feel conflicted leaving this story up because it seems so private but I can’t help but feel I learned so much from it about chemistry and people. I could not help but be fascinated as well as disturbed. I wish I knew more. I apologize if the original wording came off harsh. I meant no disrespect towards Dr. Kustu. Rest in peace, professor.
In 2009, six Harvard Medical School scientists were sickened after drinking coffee from a communal coffee machine that was laced with the chemical.
More (Journal papers are paywalled):