On Oct. 12, a hazmat team removed sodium cyanide from a Foster Mods residence. In an email to the student body, James Gray, Vice President for Campus Operations, confirmed that no one was injured by the substance.
No arrests were made. The administration would not comment on whether or not someone was detained for questioning. The administration also declined to release information about how the sodium cyanide was discovered. A hazmat team responded to the scene to safely remove it. The hazmat crew was joined by BEMCo, Brandeis PD, Department of Community Living, Waltham PD, Waltham fire trucks, Cataldo ambulances and helicopters.
Students were evacuated from Mods early in the afternoon on Friday with the assistance of emergency personnel. Students were not allowed to return to their residence until 5:15 p.m., when the hazmat team concluded its work.
The incident left students wondering about what sodium cyanide looks like and how a student got ahold of it. Sodium cyanide is an extremely dangerous substance. In its crystallized form, it can be toxic if ingested. Hydrogen cyanide is the toxic, gaseous form of the substance. Brandeis confirmed that sodium cyanide was not taken from a lab on campus, quashing rumors that it was stolen during a lab experiment. However, The Hoot asked several students who confirmed that sodium cyanide can be found in labs on campus.
In an email to the student body, Gray said the substance was bought commercially. According to the website for the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), sodium cyanide is used commercially in mining operations. It can be found in the chemical solutions that are used to develop photographs, inside cigarettes and in the manufacturing of paper, textiles, and plastics.
Cyanide can be a naturally occurring substance too. “Pits and seeds of common fruits, such as apricots, apples, and peaches, may have substantial amounts of chemicals which are metabolized to cyanide,” the CDC’s website reads.
Barry Snider, Department Chair and Professor of Organic Chemistry, explained that the substance is difficult to identify. “Sodium cyanide is a white crystalline solid that looks like salt (sodium chloride) or sugar although the crystals are often bigger like those of salt used for deicing roadways. You can’t recognize sodium cyanide by visual inspection.”
Exposure to a very small amount of cyanide can affect someone within minutes. They will experience “dizziness, headache, nausea, vomiting, rapid breathing, rapid heart rate, restlessness, and weakness,” according to the CDC. Exposure to a larger amount of cyanide will cause “convulsions, loss of consciousness, low blood pressure, respiratory failure, and slow heart rate.”
Grace Han, an assistant professor of chemistry, advised, “One should evacuate the place immediately and call EHS if they encounter the substance. If there is a chance of exposure to the substance, one should call a poison center or emergency immediately and follow the guidance of professionals.”
The Brandeis Police have specific protocols for different types of emergencies and evacuations. Students described being asked to leave the area by emergency personnel. The fire alarm was also triggered to speed up evacuation. More information about what to do if a hazardous material is released on campus can be found on the Brandeis Public Safety webpage.
Julie Jette, Director of Media Relations, confirmed that the administration will not be releasing any further information about the situation.