Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

A stupid radio stunt, where contestants had to keep drinking water and were not allowed to urinate, has resulted in the water intoxification death of one of the participants.

A woman who competed in a radio station’s contest to see how much water she could drink without going to the bathroom died of water intoxication, the coroner’s office said Saturday.

Jennifer Strange, 28, was found dead Friday in her suburban Rancho Cordova home hours after taking part in the “Hold Your Wee for a Wii” contest in which KDND 107.9 promised a Nintendo Wii video game system for the winner.

“She said to one of our supervisors that she was on her way home and her head was hurting her real bad,” said Laura Rios, one of Strange’s co-workers at Radiological Associates of Sacramento. “She was crying, and that was the last that anyone had heard from her.”

The contestants were handed 8oz bottles that they had to consume ever 15 min. I am baffled at what a irresponsible and stupid stunt this was, and that they let her drive off after reporting feeling very ill (to the point of crying) is just insane. (Edit: looks like she went to work after the contest, then complained of terrible pain, and then went home. She was found unresponsive at her home. So, one would think she felt well enough to go to work following the contest.) No report as to whether any health professional monitored the contest or advised it, but seems unlikely.

Water intoxication can occur when the blood’s plasma levels become too diluted and the body’s electrolyte concentrations go off-kilter. If water enters the body faster than it can be removed (and in the case, they weren’t allow to pee!) the body’s fluids become diluted to dangerous levels. Cells swell as a result of changes in osmotic pressure, and when this occurs in the CNS and brain, it can be fatal. As the cells swell up, many burst under their own bloated pressure as the cell’s membrane is no longer able to contain.


  1. #1 Blas
    January 14, 2007

    I canīt believe this type of competence is not illegal in every place. Appart from dangerous it is quite disgusting to see a person eating/drinking/harming himself just for enterteinment of the public.
    Something similar happens in bars/discos where youg people (sometimes adolescents) participate in competences where they have to drink beer and not go to the bathroom to win prizes, the one who pees loses.
    Competences where people eat eggs/cakes are also horrible.

  2. #2 amph
    January 14, 2007

    I think that the fact she wasn’t allow to pee has nothing to do with it; if the water is in the bladder it has technically left the system unless the pressure results in reflux, i.e. backflow from bladder to ureter, passing the valves of the ureter in the wrong direction. On the other hand, had she peed, her electrolytes would still have been messed up due to the water overload. (Actually, that pee-rule should have provided a safety limit on the amount of water to drink.)

    Oh well, who cares about the physiology, it is just so sad, stupid and insane — I hope it gets a lot of media exposure so that people learn of it. Three kids…

  3. #3 Cameron
    January 14, 2007

    If we keep on feeling like it’s our duty to protect stupid people from their own incompetence, they’ll keep on living long enough to have babies.

  4. #4 Ric
    January 14, 2007

    What a tragedy.

    I think it’s lawsuit time…

  5. #5 Crudely Wrott
    January 14, 2007

    Say what?
    Shall the children sue the estate of their dead mother because her ignorance of her own physiology has deprived them of the comfort of her continued existence? How does the application of a dollar amount to this foolish tragedy ameliorate pain and loss or justly punish a culprit, if such might be shown to exist?

    Much better to invest money in sound science and logical thinking. Of course, that would not in itself prevent similar ignoble deaths. Much better still would be to make use of such unfortunate examples by drawing widespread attention to them. These stories are the present day equivalents of folk lore and myth. It may someday be important to someone to know that too much water will kill you. Most people seem to know this. Apparently one unfortunate never got the message. Them’s the breaks. And the lesson is built in.

  6. #6 Hank Fox
    January 14, 2007

    Cameron, well, not even “stupid people” should be enticed into harming themselves for prizes.

  7. #7 Roy
    January 14, 2007

    If we keep on feeling like it’s our duty to protect stupid people from their own incompetence, they’ll keep on living long enough to have babies.

    No offense, but we don’t know anything about this woman, really, except that she drank too much water and died. Oh, and that she left behind three children.
    This is exactly the kind of contest that’s dangerous because it seems pretty harmless. Lots of people don’t realize that it can be dangerous to drink too much water, because… well… it’s water. I don’t think that most people realize it’s possible to drink too much water.
    I don’t think it’s fair to call this woman “stupid” just because she wasn’t aware that you can die from drinking too much water. I’d wager that there are plenty of seemingly harmless things that you don’t realize can be potentially fatal- does that make you stupid?
    Being uninformed doesn’t make somebody stupid.


  8. #8 steve
    January 14, 2007

    the happens every year in some frat or other…
    the radio station should lose their broadcast license…

  9. #9 Cameron
    January 14, 2007

    I’d wager that there are plenty of seemingly harmless things that you don’t realize can be potentially fatal- does that make you stupid?

    If I die from doing one of them, yes. It means exactly that, and I expect those that are left after to look upon me in the same light that I have looked upon others.

    I am aware that it comes across as cold. But we all have to honestly address reality as we see it. If heartlessness is what I express, it’s only because that is what I see.

  10. #10 Orac
    January 14, 2007


    It must be nice to be so superior in knowledge and intellect and so blithely able to dismiss being cold and heartless that way.

    From my perspective, the radio station is at fault. Even if you were justified in calling her “stupid” (which you’re not; we don’t know enough to know her level of intelligence, just that she was, like so many other people, apparently unaware that drinking a lot of water can kill), as Hank says, not even stupid people should be enticed into degrading and harming themselves for prizes.

    I also agree with Ric; this is a case where a lawsuit is justified, and it isn’t beyond the pale for the radio station to lose its license.

  11. #11 shelley
    January 14, 2007

    Its hard to say who’s the stupid party here. I think the radio station is more to blame as this stunt was under the guise of their authority. Sure, almost ALL radio stunts are dumb or gross or require a small amount of pain. But I think that people, stupid or no, probably assume that said silly stunts won’t KILL them. I hope that people would be smart enough to realize that drinking a lot of Ex-Lax (etc) would be harmful, but i could understand that those not well-versed in science or medicine wouldn’t necessarily assume that drinking a lot of water would do anything other than give them a stomach ache or make them bloated. So, i think i’ll give this woman a pass. The radio station, on the other hand, should have done their homework or had a doc around.

  12. #12 Davis
    January 14, 2007

    If I die from doing one of them, yes. It means exactly that, and I expect those that are left after to look upon me in the same light that I have looked upon others.

    Many of us prefer to make a distinction between ignorance and stupidity, whereas you’re treating them as one and the same. However, there’s one important difference between the two, which we should keep in mind — ignorance is curable.

  13. #13 AndyS
    January 14, 2007

    If we keep on feeling like it’s our duty to protect stupid people from their own incompetence, they’ll keep on living long enough to have babies.

    That is perhaps the most demented and despicable statement that I’ve seen on any of the ScienceBlogs. Please go over to LGF and stay there.

  14. #14 Reed A. Cartwright
    January 14, 2007

    I believe that a lawsuit is justified, but it is going to be tricky. More than likely, the woman signed a legal waiver. However, the station probably did not inform her about water intoxication, nor had any medical staff on hand to treat any possible injuries. The station was clearly negligent and possibly criminally negligent. I see little difference between water drinking contests and playing Russian roulette for a Wii.

  15. #15 Charlie (Colorado)
    January 14, 2007

    Reed, are you going to impose the same rule on marathons? There are a certain number of deaths from autointoxication during marathons every year, because people force watch in order to remain hydrated, and overshoot.

  16. #16 Cameron
    January 14, 2007

    That is perhaps the most demented and despicable statement that I’ve seen on any of the ScienceBlogs. Please go over to LGF and stay there.

    One does one’s best.

  17. #17 Brian
    January 14, 2007

    Charlie (Colorado), yes, but if you read Reed’s post, he expressed doubts about the presence of a medical professional, a suspicion with which I’m inclined to agree, given what is known from the report. At least at a marathon, there are several medical pros on staff, and presumably those running a marathon are at least somewhat more trained than the average bear.
    Your comparison would be more apt if there were a marathon held with no docs or medics on site, and a death occurred. And then, yes, the event organizers would be criminally liable.
    The question, by the way, when determining liability, is not whether or not anyone compelled her to drink the water, or whether she was dumb for doing it. It is whether having trained medical personnel on site was reasonable to expect of the radio station (this will be found to be so), whether having such could have resulted in a different outcome (it could be argued), and whether the radio station neglected to do so (again, an assumption from what I’ve read). If it turns out in court that the answer to all three is yes, then the radio station will (and should) be sued.

  18. #18 Keanus
    January 14, 2007

    The stunt violated an old axiom of mine: Anything imbibed or eaten to excess can kill and moderation in everything is wise. Most people don’t believe me, especially when it comes to water, but this event just illustrates it, provided the tale is true.

  19. #19 Bob Abu
    January 15, 2007

    Did she at least win the Wii?

    If so, what is the problem?

  20. #20 Tyler DiPietro
    January 15, 2007

    Did she at least win the Wii?

    If so, what is the problem?

    Not funny. Children are motherless now because of the incompetence of a radio station.

    (Just for the record: I’m probably the biggest Nintendo fanboy here.)

  21. #21 G. Tingey
    January 15, 2007

    There is a huge and important difference between:
    IGNORANT – which is cureable – and this woman was undoubtedly ignorant of the water intoxication problem.
    STUPID – which is knowing about soething, and carrying on anyway.

    The radio station should have known, and checked.
    I would have thought a criminal prosecution against the radio station would stand a good chance of succeding.

  22. #22 Alon Levy
    January 15, 2007

    Amph, is it possible for the bladder to get full and just not accept any more water? In that case, peeing will let the bladder absorb more water from the system, relieving the osmotic pressure.

  23. #23 Mike
    January 15, 2007

    Just to show it’s not just in the US where people and radio stations are dumb – a radio station in Birmingham (England, not Alabama) had a competition in 2001 called “The Coolest Seats in Town”. They had four people sitting on blocks of dry ice, completely unaware that it was so cold it had deadened all feeling. Three ended up in hospital for weeks needing extensive skin grafts, and the station was fined a mere Ģ15,000.

    My position – I don’t think that companies should be fined where someone does something stupid and illogical with their product (such as taking a normal radio into the shower, or climbing over barriers the company has put up), but where both the individual and the company have been stupid and dangerous then some punishment is required just to make them try not to be stupid in future.

  24. #24 Lab Lemming
    January 15, 2007

    Even if they didn’t have a doc on hand, a simple bowl of pretzels or potato chips could have been the difference bewteen life and death here.

    Does anyone know if she was on a salt-controlled diet?

  25. #25 amph
    January 15, 2007

    Alon, Yes that is conceivable: At a certain point you’d expect that it is simply full. Pressure might build up and you would conceivably get a backflow and if not, urine would stay in the kidney. Apparently, unlike I said above and was taught long ago, no real valves exist in the urethra, according to Wikipedia: “There are no valves in the ureters, backflow being prevented by pressure from the filling of the bladder, as well as the tone of the muscle in the bladder wall.” So there is a system that acts like valves would do, but there are no real physically visible valves.
    Anyway, you would expect that the system was designed -oops, had evolved – in such a way that in case of high pressure the natural exit of the bladder would give way before you would get into trouble. After all no-one can holds his breath long enough to commit suicide, and reflux/ overhydration is way more life-threatening than peeing your pants, or whatever the exact natural risk of untimely urinating is.
    My guess is that this accident was, like most accidents, multifactorial: (1) the stupidity that now has been sufficiently described by others and (2) perhaps some minor physiological or anatomical abnormality in this woman, which should never have become a real problem.
    If I was the radio station’s lawyer, I would pursue that, I guess.

  26. #26 lurker2222
    January 15, 2007

    Lawsuit? that is absurd. If a radio station is expected to know that water overdoses have killed more people than marijuana then so should the woman. Why should a broadcaster be held to a higher level of medical competence than its listeners? The only difference between the station and her is that the station was holding a contest, neither of them thought there was anything wrong with it.

    I think a physician should be consulted before any contest involving a physical stunt is performed, but until THAT is the law, I feel it is ridiculous to hold the station responsible for this senseless tragedy.

    Also, I agree that performing disgusting dangerous stunts for the amusement of others is just downright sick, as are the people who get enjoyment out of them.

  27. #27 lurker2222
    January 15, 2007

    The radio station SHOULD have known? Seriously, if it is not common knowledge that water intoxication exists (I just found out about it last year), how can anyone even expect them to have thought of it?

    If there is a lawsuit, the real judgement should go to forcing the radio station to enact a nationwide campaign as to the dangers of hydrogen monoxide. The tasteless, oderless, colorless killer has run free long enough! Won’t somebody think of the children?!

  28. #28 smallDot
    January 15, 2007

    Seems strange that considering it was a competition to see how much water you could drink, that it was not immediately known how much water Strange consumed.

  29. #29 zensunni
    January 15, 2007

    “There is a huge and important difference between:
    IGNORANT – which is cureable – and this woman was undoubtedly ignorant of the water intoxication problem.
    STUPID – which is knowing about soething, and carrying on anyway.

    The radio station should have known, and checked.
    I would have thought a criminal prosecution against the radio station would stand a good chance of succeding.”

    If your definition of ignorance includes a requirement being curable, then you are saying this woman was stupid… she is unlikely to be ‘cured’ of her lack of knowledge at this point.

  30. #30 Brian
    January 15, 2007

    Amph, if you’ve ever had an allergic reaction, or known someone who has, then you know that the body ain’t exactly perfectly “designed”. Anyway, it has nothing to do with peeing, really, so much as it relates to the limitation of the kidneys to filter/excrete a certain volume per unit of time. If you keep drinking and drinking, at some point you’re gonna exceed your kidneys’ capacity to filter it and excrete it, and it can take a long time for it to correct itself.

    Lurker, of course a lawsuit is warranted here. You’re saying, essentially, “How were they supposed to know? It’s apparently not very well known!” The simple answer to that is this: They were having the competition, they should have taken a proper risk assessment beforehand, including at least consulting with a medical professional. And again, it gets down to this: Would it have been reasonable to expect the radio station to have medical personnel on hand (Yes)? Could having them there have changed the outcome (Yes – note I didn’t say WOULD)? Did they fail in that regard (Seems like it – I only have the news report)? It’s as simple as that. The lawsuit will hinge on whether or not the radio station neglected to fulfill a reasonable expectation for there to be medical personnel on staff.

  31. #31 TomDunlap
    January 15, 2007

    It’s not stupidity, it’s ignorance. If it weren’t, then this would be a non story. It is the surprise value of “gee you can die from drinking water” that gives it appeal. Even to people who know, it is counter intuitive. But if you are going to hold an event like this, you should, even if not required, know what the risks are. If it was a pie eating contest, you would expect to make people aware if there were peanuts or other allergens in the pies.

  32. #32 biosparite
    January 15, 2007

    I would like to see the theoretical underpinning of a civil suit arising from these facts. The station enticed people to undertake a hazardous activity for a prize. How about the situation where a radio station set up a diving contest at a lake from a high point along the shore without first checking for submerged hazards, remaining silent about any possible risks? There would clearly be a point where a reasonable person would recognize at least some danger and woould be comparatively negligent in agreeing to a specific stunt. I don’t think the water-drinking contest rises to that point. So I would argue the radio station had a legal duty to refrain from conduct that would entice listeners into a deadly activity whose hazards are not immediately manifest; even a warning from the stattion might not be enough in some cases to absolve the station completely, but let the jury determine whether a reasonable person should have known about any danger, reducing any judgment by the negligence, if any, of the contestant. The judge could intervene with a summary judgment or judgment n.o.v. or the like in case the contestant acted in a totally idiotic fashion by a reasonable-person standard. The children through a next friend should consider a wrongful-death and survival action arising out of these facts.

  33. #33 Morgan
    January 15, 2007

    Shelley, you say:

    I am baffled at what a irresponsible and stupid stunt this was, and that they let her drive off after reporting feeling very ill (to the point of crying) is just insane.

    However, based on this quote…

    “She said to one of our supervisors that she was on her way home and her head was hurting her real bad,” said Laura Rios, one of Strange’s co-workers at Radiological Associates of Sacramento.

    …it sounds to me like she finished the contest, left the station, went back to work and there started to feel ill.

    Her workplace may not have known that she had been doing anything potentially dangerous, and thus had less cause for concern when she reported feeling unwell.

  34. #34 Shelley
    January 15, 2007

    Hmm, I think you’re right Morgan. Looks like it was her supervisor at work (for some reason I read it as the radio station supervisor) who made the comment. Thanks for pointing that out.

  35. #35 Shodan
    January 15, 2007

    Here in the Sacramento area a couple of years ago, there was a hazing incident at Chico State where a pledge died from drinking too much water. Eventually, two senior members of the frat pled to manslaughter. This incident made news for months in the local paper, the local TV news and most of the radio stations, most probably including the radio station in question (although I can’t say for sure since I don’t listen to it). It was BIG news. Given the precedent, the station should have known better.

    Morgan, according to the Bee, from whence the wire story originated, she never made it to work but called her supervisor after leaving the radio station. The supervisor later called the victim’s mother to go check on her. Her mother found her dead.

    IMHO, the radio station had an obligation to at least understand the risks of what it was doing. A few minutes of research could have shown them the error of their ways…

  36. #36 Morgan
    January 15, 2007

    Shodan: If you’re referring to this story, thanks for the pointer (that’s a lot more detail than I’d seen anywhere else) – but it still doesn’t look like she left the station feeling unwell and in tears. I don’t think it’s entirely fair to blame the station for that side of things (“letting her drive off”).

    However, I agree with you and others here that, if you’re going to host a contest that’s designed to test people’s limits, you should look into the health risks beforehand, and it was irresponsible of the station to (by the sound of it) have no medical advice and no kind of checks/treatment afterwards.

    Seeing this disturbs me…

    Gina Sherrod, who competed with Strange in the contest, said her family listened to the radio show, and told her that a nurse was on air warning that drinking too much water is dangerous. Sherrod said a DJ rebuffed the nurse, saying the contestants signed waivers. Sherrod said the waivers addressed only publicity issues and made no mention of health or safety concerns.

    …what, because you’ve signed a waiver that protects the station if you have health problems, that somehow means there are no health risks? That’s nonsensical.

  37. #37 KD
    January 15, 2007

    For everyone’s information, I knew this girl and she was very smart! I know for a fact that she loved her family and always put them first. I cannot believe the lack of consideration many of you have in blaming her for this awful and sad accident! Until Jennifer’s death, I never knew about water intoxication and that drinking too much could cause death. People participate in contests everyday and it is all in good fun. Why would anyone think that something as simple as drinking water would cause such extreme damage? Sure she could have stopped, but how many times have people gorged themselves with food then felt awful afterwards…..Did they think they would die? I imagine that drinking too much water just makes you feel full at first and the intoxication part happens after it is too late.

    I feel awful about what has happened and that now her husband and children have to deal with people considering that this is her fault. I will miss her and will never forget her!!

  38. #38 AndreasB
    January 15, 2007

    One for the “who could have known” crowd: Another danger in this contest could have been bladder rupture, say when one of the contestants with a bladder filled to the max stumbled and fell in their hurry to get to the bathroom. This leads to internal bleeding and possible subsequent infections. It will require surgical treatment if it’s not just a tiny rupture.

    This one’s a tad more obvious than the obscure water intoxication.

  39. #39 Brian
    January 15, 2007

    I don’t know that I speak for anyone else here in saying this, but despite the fact that there have been, admittedly, a few insensitive things posted about this here, in general what I think many are struck by is the fact that this death was so unnecessary and avoidable.

    I believe you’ll find that the vast majority of folks view the radio station as the party at fault here. What makes this story particularly tragic is that she died trying to do something special for her children, and I think that in a sense you’re right, that she had a reasonable expectation that what she was doing was either A) totally safe, or B) closely monitored by medical personnel who would inform contestants of the risks and symptoms to watch out for.

    In any event, you needn’t take it personally – should this case be prosecuted, be prepared for her to be discussed in much the same way. They will argue that it was her choice to participate, and that she is at fault for what happened.

    By all means, accept my condolences, be there for her family, and look out for ’em in this trying time.

  40. #40 Bob Abu
    January 15, 2007

    They may have lost their mother but at least they may now have a Wii.

    Maybe the principle makes it all worth while?

    Allah works in mysterious ways.

  41. #41 SciencePunk
    January 16, 2007

    The radio station are wholly culpable here – it was up to them to ensure the competition was safe. The risks should have been explained to the contestants. Strange’s condition after the competition should have been monitored. Strange should have been told how serious a symptom her headache was.

    Even if water intoxication is not well known to the general public, the risks are obvious to anyone with even a passing medical knowledge. It’s an absolute mystery and disgrace as to how this could happen.

  42. #42 Bob Abu
    January 16, 2007

    The radio station is not really culpable, but they will of course have to pay. Any jury will see a widow with young children, they will instinctively know there is insurance money around and rule in favor of this family.

    As far as the lady being stupid or not. Well, not to be rude, but who among us have not done something at least as stupid as this young Mum. Who hasn’t gotten into drinking contests, or hooked up with people who for all you know might be potential killers. Its obvious in retrospect, but who would really think out that drinking a lot of water would result in your own death?

    It’s like Jesus once said “you without sin cast the first stone, you motherfuckers.”

  43. #43 Shelley (not Batts)
    January 20, 2007

    I feel the responsibility shouldn’t be with the radio station, the contestants themselves are the ones responsible for the entering the contest, no one held a gun to their heads and forced them to play.

    The unfortunate event of circumstances that inevitably led to her death, were due to her own actions, that she took by entering into the contest. Sometimes unfortunately, there might be unforseen consenquences due to actions that we take, but I am sure most adults were told by their parents at least once during their childhood that “Somtimes there might be consenquences for the actions that you take, or choices that you make.” Albeit Jennifer’s was the ULTIMATE consenquence, but nonetheless it was hers and only hers, when she took the action to enter into the contest.

    A friend of mine won a Harley Davidson from a local Sacramento radio station, so according to Levine, if she ever (PRAY THAT IT DOESN’T!!) were to get in an accident while riding the Harley, would she or her family would have the right to sue the radio station for the accident!!? Afterall, the radio station were the ones that she won the Harley from, and surely the disc jockeys and radio station must know that you can be killed while riding a motorcycle, right? This way of thinking would be ludricrous. We are the only ones responsible for our actions and choices, no one else!! The bottom line is, it was HER choice to drink the water.

    I would like to end with stating how truly sad I am for the surviving members of her family and friends. Hopefully the day comes soon, when their heartache and sorrow begin to diminish, and begin to fill themselves with the happiness and joy that she brought to their lives.


    Edit: (not Batts)

  44. #44 Roy
    January 21, 2007

    Shelley (not Batts), I don’t think that anyone who has posted in this thread would say that the radio station is responsible for someone getting hurt on a motorcycle that they won from that radio station.
    1. The dangers of motorcycle riding are comparitively well known by most people.
    2. You have to get a special license to ride the motorcycle, and you’ll learn the dangers there, as well.
    3. Nobody is being encouraged to unsafely ride a motorcycle just because they win one through a contest.
    4. The safety of riding a motorcycle is not assumed by most people just because it was won as a prize.

    Consider, on the other hand:
    1. The dangers of drinking too much water are not very well known by most people.
    2. Nobody informed any of the contestents that there could be any danger from drinking too much water.
    3. They were being actively encouraged to drink an unsafe amount of water in order to win the contest.
    4. There is generally an expectation from most people that contests are safe.

    The reason that I, and some others (I assume), are saying that the station bears some or the bulk of the responsibility in this case, is because the death was a direct result of the contest itself. When a station puts on a contest, they have a responsibility to ensure that proper safety precautions are taken. They have a responsibility to ensure that contestents are aware of any dangers that they might be in for the duration of the contest. When people enter into contests, there is the expectation that the station isn’t putting them in serious risk, or that, if there is a risk, that medical care is available and ready. If there’s a wall climbing contest, we assume that there will be safety harnesses, and that they’ll have been properly tested. We don’t expect that it’s our responsibility to test the harnesses ourselves before begining.

    It appears that not only did the station not properly research this contest to ensure that it was safe, but actually dismissed medical advice that there might be dangers associated with drinking too much water.

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