Most people would never consider a clogged sink harmful. But at this week’s American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) annual meeting in Orlando, Fla., Jackson County Medical Examiner Dr. Mary Dudley and Deputy ME Dr. Marius Tarau will be presenting a case study about how a blocked pipe—combined with a powerful drain cleaner—proved fatal.
The Jackson County ME’s Office determined that a Kansas City woman in 2013 died from “hydrogen sulfide intoxication” after trying to repair her kitchen sink. Dissembling the pipes exposed her to hydrogen sulfide—better known as sewer gas—and the use of the drain cleaner likely compounded the impact of the gas.
When inhaled in high enough concentrations, hydrogen sulfide starves a person’s cells of oxygen, much the same way carbon monoxide does.
“The woman’s roommate found her under the sink,” Dr. Dudley said. “This is a unique case in that you don’t normally see lethal hydrogen sulfide exposure outside of an industrial setting. Usually, if there is a fatality, it will involve someone working in the sewer and there’s a sudden, overwhelming exposure to the gas.”
She stressed, “This was preventable.”
AAFS has 6,260 members whose expertise spans the entire scope of forensic sciences. The conference in Orlando features seminars on anthropology, criminology, dentistry, document examination, engineering, jurisprudence, mass fatalities, pathology, psychiatry and toxicology.
“It speaks volumes about our Medical Examiner’s Office that, when Dr. Dudley and her colleagues attend a national conference, their peers want to hear from them—and learn from them,” Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders said. “I also appreciate Dr. Dudley’s emphasis on preventing tragic accidents like what happened to that woman trying to fix her sink.”
Dr. Dudley noted that while Hydrogen Sulfide Fatality From a Domestic Sink Drain Exposure might “serve as a warning to do-it-yourselfers,” emergency responders must be aware of the potential risk when responding to similar situations.
“In our case, we had to make sure the air levels were safe before letting the roommate return to the home,” she said. “The gas will smell like rotten eggs, but when fixing a clogged sink you might think the smell’s just part of the problem and getting the clog fixed will get rid of the smell. That smell is actually a warning to stop what you’re doing and get out of there.”
Dudley and Tarau will present another case study at the meeting with Jackson County ME Forensic Pathology Fellow Dr. Ross Miller. An Autopsy Report: Death Secondary to a Widely Disseminated Invasive Scopulariopsis Infection is based on a case dating back to Miller’s residency at an Omaha hospital.
“I admit I have trouble even pronouncing ‘Scopulariopsis,’” said Dr. Dudley. “Our fellowship program offers doctors like Dr. Miller an opportunity to learn from us and for us to learn from them.”
According to a poster the Jackson County ME’s Office has prepared for the conference, Scopulariopsis is a “fungi common in the environment, but rarely associated with an invasive disease.” Dr. Miller’s case study is about one of those rare occurrences: a 46-year-old woman with a history of lymphoma who suffered multiple bacterial infections before dying of respiratory and renal failure.