Des Moines, Iowa - How did formaldehyde get inside a bottle of cough syrup? That is the question being asked by Olivia Hawn (18) and the Windsor Heights Police Department.  Was it an accident, a mistake, or was someone trying to poison her? The story from the Des Moines Register describes how this student at Vatterott College drank from a cough syrup bottle and a short time later became ill; as a friend was driving her home she stopped talking and then started foaming from the mouth. Emergency responders were called and she ended up in the hospital at Iowa Methodist Medical Center. At the time of that article she was listed in serious condition.

Formaldehyde can be deadly if ingested. It can also be inhaled and over time will cause serious and chronic respiratory problems including bronchitis, pneumonia and asthma. Small or young children are more at risk for the more serious disabling conditions. Of course, ingesting it, means eating or drinking something with formaldehyde in it; like Miss Hawn is said to have done.

How do you know you've inhaled or drank a formaldehyde product?

Know the signs of symptoms of formaldehyde poisoning. They include these problems:

  • Eye irritation when formaldehyde is inhaled
  • Nose irritation when formaldehyde is inhaled
  • Throat irritation when formaldehyde is inhaled
  • Headache when formaldehyde is inhaled
  • Skin injury when formaldehyde is inhaled
  • Burnt esophagus when formaldehyde is swallowed
  • Burnt stomach when formaldehyde is swallowed
  • Acute destruction of red blood cells occurs through dialysis using machines cleaned with formaldehyde
  • Hypotension severe cases
  • Arrhythmia severe cases
  • Irregular breathing severe cases
  • Restlessness severe cases
  • Unconsciousness severe cases
  • Coma severe cases

Obviously this investigation isn't over with because toxicology analysis will have to confirm that the liquid she drank was in fact formaldehyde. After which the police will investigate the place where the bottle was stored and maybe check for fingerprints on the bottle. What they will be asking or trying to conclude is how formaldehyde got inside the bottle and by whom was it poured into that bottle.

Medically the person poisoned will be evaluated to determine various personal issues and to confirm what was ingested.

Forms of formaldehyde are described in Wikipedia and include liquid solutions that include this chemical. "When dissolved in water, formaldehyde converts to H2C(OH)2, a diol (i.e. a compound with two hydroxy groups). Aqueous solutions of formaldehyde are referred to as formalin. "100%" formalin consists of a saturated solution of formaldehyde (this is about 40% by volume or 37% by mass) in water, with a small amount of stabilizer, usually methanol to limit oxidation and degree of polymerization. Typical commercial grade formalin may contain 10-12% methanol in addition to various metallic impurities. The diol also exists in equilibrium with a series of short polymers (called oligomers), depending on the concentration and temperature. The infinite polymer formed from formaldehyde is called paraformaldehyde."

It may have been used at someone's place of employment and brought home.

Occupational Exposure and Safety - In the work place setting the worker is at risk from inhalation, touching products with formaldehyde and of course thermal or chemical decomposition.

Iowa's history with formaldehyde is not pleasant. FEMA brought in trailers with the product during the 2008 flooding and in the early 1900's US milk plants added it to milk bottles as a method of pasteurization. Orphanages experienced high rates of death associated with ingestion of formaldehyde.

Reference Data Sheet On Formaldehyde, Richard Gullickson, CIH indicates potential sources of this chemical that you'd expect could be in any household includes disinfectants, paint preservatives, seed/bulb treatment and tanning operations.

Why it was in a cough syrup bottle isn't clear nor the reasons why the label wasn't removed. A very strange case indeed.

Steve Lombardi
Iowa personal injury, workers' compensation, motorcycle, quadriplegic, paraplegic, brain injury, death
Try calling the local or state department of health. Start there.
by Steve Lombardi January 22, 2013 at 10:20 AM
my friend is very ill after new particle board cabinets were installed, weak, shortness of breath, bronchitis symptoms, dizziness, how do I get her apartment building inspected for outgassing of the new particleboard cabinets, several other people are having similar symptoms.
by George Glavas January 21, 2013 at 09:22 PM
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