Dihydrogen monoxide kills

Really. This is painfully sad: a young woman enters a water-drinking contest to win a video game console for her kids, and ends up dying of water intoxication.


  1. #1 Ed Darrell
    January 14, 2007

    This happens periodically — people assume that water is safe, since it’s not alcohol, and not caffeine. But something that puts the body’s electrolytes level so out of whack can be deadly. Jane Brody’s column in the New York Times covered the issue of hydration a few months ago. In the previous year, not a person had died from dehydration in any formal running event, but several had died after marathons from over-hydration.

    It’s the same effect one gets from freshwater drowning. Our bodies try to balance out the electrolytes in all the fluid. The sudden rush of salts from our body to the other liquid, or the dilution of the salts, results in circulatory collapse and heart failure.

    The headache was a big clue. A physician should have been on hand, and administration of electrolytes might have made it just a minor issue.

    “Everything in moderation” takes on a sudden, life-saving meaning.

    There is a larger issue here, of risk-taking, risk assessment, and knowledge of what can be fatal. There is, for example, the conundrum of what we do about selenium. In trace amounts, selenium is an essential nutrient. In those same amounts, however, it is carcinogenic. The Delaney Clause in the Safe Food and Drug Act prevents using any known carcinogen as an additive to foods. Selenium is also present in potatoes, but food itself is not considered an additive.

    Kids sometimes develop an over-affection for a food. There are stories in the literature of kids turning rather orange after a couple of months of a diet of almost exclusively carrots, for example. In one food safety meeting years ago a fellow commented that was no problem, since it was impossible to overdose on vitamin A. Of course, the stuff that makes the kids orange isn’t vitamin A, its carotene. It not only is possible to overdose on vitamin A, that’s probably what killed some of the Antarctic explorers who butchered their dogs and ate the livers, not realizing that by doing so they were poisoning themselves. (Inuits and other Arctic natives know not to eat the liver of a polar bear for the same reasons — vitamin A concentrates in livers.)

    A few times a year one may read of some upstanding citizen being arrested for public drunkenness and dying in jail. Diabetic complications can closely resemble drunkenness, down to the smell of the breath to the uninformed. Untreated, the diabetic conditions can lead to death. How many cases go unreported?

    Science is fascinating, and ignorance can kill. I hope this story hits the front pages, but I’ll bet it doesn’t.

  2. #2 Cyde Weys
    January 14, 2007

    Hey PZ, too bad it wasn’t energized water with a bond angle of 10 degrees greater, right? Had it been that, I’m sure she’d be living to a couple hundred years old.

  3. #3 igor
    January 14, 2007

    DFX–I don’t think that is a stupid question. I was about to ask it myself.

    Although I was unaware of the dangers of drinking too much water (I tend towards dehydration myself if I’m not careful), I would have thought they would have also been medically aware of the dangers of “holding it.” Unless that’s a myth, although my Mom always told me it isn’t good for you to deny your bladder relief. In fact, I always think of Tycho Brahe when I hold it for too long…

  4. #4 John Emerson
    January 14, 2007

    We’ll just have to drown some people in 0.9% normal saline and see.

  5. #5 Brian
    January 14, 2007

    Oh, and one more thing. Wouldn’t you think that during the conception, planning, organizing, etc., etc., of this event, someone somewhere along the way might have said to him/herself, “perhaps it would be good to consult a medical professional on this one”?

    It kills me that the news report mentions that the death was a surprise to the event organizers. Piss poor planning…

  6. #6 craig
    January 15, 2007

    I was stunned at the stupidity of the radio station when I heard about this. You can bet they are going to be facing a huge lawsuit.

  7. #7 notthedroids
    January 15, 2007

    People have died from too much water, both in extreme endurance races and in fraternity hazing incidents, and these incidents have been well-publicized:

    There is absolutely no excuse for the radio station to have run this promotion. *insert snarky remark about Sacramento and the people who live there*

    I predict they will settle out of court for an undisclosed amount. The huge company that owns the station will absorb the cost, and not even a single person will be fired or otherwise held accountable.

  8. #8 mndean
    January 15, 2007

    As much as I’d like to see a criminal prosecution in this case, I don’t have much faith in our local DA to do the right thing. Whenever law enforcement or a monied interest is involved in committing a crime, the answer always seems to be the same, “not enough evidence to prosecute”. Criminal charges might be filed, but I’m not holding my breath.

  9. #9 HPLC_Sean
    January 15, 2007

    Consumption contests are utterly stupid. The moronic radio station put more thought into the name of the contest (“Hold your wee for a Wii”) than the contestants.

  10. #10 clio
    January 15, 2007


    I’m not a physiologist, but I think it would be much more difficult, if not impossible, to water intoxicate with Gatorade which contains electrolytes as well as quite a lot of sugars.

    The sugars slow transit into the gut. The reason for the sugars is to help more electrolytes be absorbed. It would also be much more uncomfortable to drink very large quantities rapidly as one would feel full. Water, OTOH, is absorbed directly across the stomach wall as well as in the gut thereby diluting the serum electrolytes much more efficiently.

    I know that when treating cholera, which often kills by dehydration alone, oral rehydration solutions are consumed by the quart. However, these are carefully formulated to contain both sodium and potassium to avoid just the kind of electrolyte imbalance that killed this unfortunate woman.

  11. #11 BirdAdvocate
    January 15, 2007

    This was a real tragedy. It’s too sad someone didn’t give the contest more thought.

  12. #12 Azkyroth
    January 15, 2007

    *insert snarky remark about Sacramento and the people who live there*

    Bite me.

  13. #13 Ichthyic
    January 15, 2007

    Andrew learned the hard way, the conventional wisdom is that it’s pretty much impossible to get too much water.

    oh, I think case history proves you wrong on this one, hands down.

    ever heard the expression: “Ignorance of the law is no excuse”?

    I would expect that if the radio station actually even has liability insurance (woe to them if they don’t), very likely terms are explicitly stated in their liability policy requiring them to do standard checks before proceeding with a “contest” of this nature.

    Not only didn’t they bother to check, they seem to have forgotten that about a year ealier, in the same area, a local sports hero died of the exact same thing.

    OH YES, you betchya that radio station is liable. Big time. Even if the participants signed waivers, in California, such waivers hold no legal weight (you cannont legally waive your rights in such a manner in this state). The real question is, could Nintendo also be found liable for sponsoring the contest?

    I could see legit arguments for including them in a wrongful death suit.

    But I have little doubt the stations will be found liable in civil court, and likely the district attorney is considering criminal charges based on negligence.

    this is as clear a case of negligence/wrongful death I’ve seen pop up in the media in a while.

    don’t get me wrong; I have nothing against this particular radio station, nor any radio station that wants to run contests, but this is not medical information that is hard to locate, by any means, and not having a medical professional on hand would violate any liability policy i can think of. Again, if they didn’t even HAVE a liability policy to cover this, this station is in deep trouble.

  14. #14 Ichthyic
    January 15, 2007

    . To quote The Lake Texarkana Gamera “Oxegen is so overrated. People forget that in high enough concentrations it’s nothing more than deadly shit.”

    exactly, you actually counter your own point by quoting this example.

    people are poisoned by over-exposure to oxygen on a regular basis.

    this again, is an easy thing to find out, and is known by even the most basically trained of professionals that have to deal with oxygen in the field (like firemen).

    “common wisdom” is not a legal argument one can make here.

  15. #15 Owlmirror
    January 15, 2007

    exactly, you actually counter your own point by quoting this example.

    Um, I think you misunderstood. The two of you are actually violently in agreement.

    Of course, the comment you’re referring to could have been punctuated and formatted a little differently, which might have clarified the point a bit. Imagine quotes surrounding the sentence you’re (probably) reacting to (and the sentence should be read with a deeply sarcastic tone), then a paragraph break.

  16. #16 Keith Douglas
    January 16, 2007

    Nick: I was taught in general chemistry that water is never named systematically – one of a few exceptions. (The only other one I can remember now, unfortunately, being ammonia.)

    Yeah, I was skeptical of the claims made of Gatorade too. I remember when it came to the local corner stores and people said all sorts of crap …

    As for this tragedy, yeah, consumption contests are pretty sickening … in this case worse because there were people other than the victim who would be obviously affected. And the “doing it so the kids can have a toy” bit …

  17. #17 David Marjanovi?
    January 16, 2007

    0.9 % saline tastes good. Is that not isotonic? Have I overlooked the amount of potassium a rehydration solution needs to contain in addition to that?

  18. #18 David Marjanovi?
    January 16, 2007

    0.9 % saline tastes good. Is that not isotonic? Have I overlooked the amount of potassium a rehydration solution needs to contain in addition to that?

  19. #19 opalescence tooth whitening gel
    December 15, 2009

    Excs, tht I ntrrpt y, bt, n my pnn, ths thm s nt s ctl.

New comments have been temporarily disabled. Please check back soon.