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Karen Wetterhahn

Karen Wetterhahn (1949 - June 8 1997) was a well-known professor of chemistry at Dartmouth College specializing in toxic metal exposure. On August 14 1996, while working with an organic mercury compound called dimethylmercury, she spilled a drop or two on her latex glove. Five months later, she noticed some neurologic symptoms such as loss of balance and slurred speech. She was admitted to the hospital, where it was discovered that the single exposure to dimethylmercury had raised her blood mercury level to 4,000 micrograms per liter, or 20 times the toxic threshold. Toxic blood level is reported to be > 200 μg/L, normal range is 1-8 μg/L.[1] Despite aggressive chelation therapy, her condition rapidly deteriorated and three weeks after first symptoms appeared she fell into a coma and died a few months later, less than a year after her initial exposure.

Wetterhahn's death shocked her chemistry department, as the accidental exposure occurred despite the use of gloves, a fume hood, and adherence to standard safety procedures. Her colleagues then tested various safety gloves against dimethylmercury, apparently for the first time ever, and found that the small, apolar molecule diffuses through most of them in seconds, much faster than expected. Dimethylmercury was the common calibration standard for 199Hg NMR spectroscopy, as it has certain advantages over the alternatives that exist.[2] OSHA recommendations[3] and MSD Sheets[4] were changed in consequence and use of dimethylmercury has been highly discouraged.

Dartmouth has established an award in her name to encourage other women in science.


  1. ^ Nierenberg D. W. et al. "Delayed Cerebellar Disease and Death After Accidental Exposure to Dimethylmercury." The New England Journal of Medicine 1998, 1672-1676.
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See also

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Karen_Wetterhahn". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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