Cancer Doctor's Alleged Poisoning: How Can Ethylene Glycol Kill?

Cup of coffee in a red mug.
A Houston cancer researcher accuses a colleague of poisoning him with ethylene glycol, the main ingredient of antifreeze, in his coffee. (Image credit: Phillip Durand, Shutterstock)

A cancer researcher in Houston is accused of aggravated assault in the alleged poisoning of a fellow cancer doctor.

According to a criminal complaint filed May 29, Dr. Ana Maria Gonzalez-Angulo, a breast cancer oncologist at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center spiked the coffee of her colleague Dr. George Blumenschein with ethylene glycol, causing kidney failure and other complications. Gonzalez-Angulo and Blumenschein were in a casual sexual relationship, according to the complaint, which was first reported by the Houston Chronicle.

So what is ethylene glycol? This industrial chemical is odorless, colorless — and deadly, especially given that it tastes sweet, making it appealing to kids and pets.

Because it lowers the freezing point of water, ethylene glycol is mainly used as anantifreeze in automobiles. It's also used in some manufacturing processes and in research labs, including at M.D. Anderson, according to investigators. Most poisonings occur via antifreeze ingestion, however, according to the U.S. government's Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (ATSDR). 

In the complaint, Blumenschein alleges that Gonzalez-Angulo made him a cup of coffee that tasted suspiciously sweet, given that he normally drinks his coffee black. He objected, according to the complaint, but Gonzalez-Angulo told him the taste was the sweetener Splenda and then made him a second, also sweet, mug.

Blumenschein, a specialist in lung, head and neck cancers, alleges that a few hours later, he began to slur his speech and lose his balance and motor skills. A urine test revealed signs of ethylene glycol poisoning. The doctor would eventually need dialysis to save his ailing kidneys.

Ethylene glycol kills by first affecting the central nervous system, causing symptoms such as headache, confusion, slurred speech and tremors, according to ATSDR. As the body metabolizes the compound, cardiopulmonary symptoms kick in: a racing heart, high blood pressure and rapid breathing. About 24 to 72 hours after untreated ingestion, the body's attempts to clear the compound end with kidney dysfunction or failure, which can be irreversible.

Treatment of ethylene glycol poisoning depends on how long ago the patient ingested the chemical. In early stages, doctors may try to induce vomiting. They may also give medications that inhibit ethylene glycol metabolism.

Dialysis, which takes over the role of the kidneys by cleansing the blood, may be necessary to remove ethylene glycol and its toxic byproducts from the body.

Lawyers for Gonzalez-Angulo told the Houston Chronicle in a statement that their client is innocent. She has been released on $50,000 bail.

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Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.