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Arsenic Poisoning Caused by Intentional Contamination of Coffee at a Church Gathering—An Epidemiological Approach to a Forensic Investigation

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An outbreak of apparent food-borne illness following a church gathering was promptly reported to the Maine Bureau of Health. Gastrointestinal symptoms among church attendees were initially attributed to consumption of leftover sandwiches that had been served the previous day. However, a rapid epidemiological and laboratory assessment revealed the etiology of illness, including the death of an elderly gentleman, was not food-borne in origin. A criminal investigation determined that deliberate arsenic contamination of the brewed coffee by one of the church members was the source of the outbreak. Public health officials and criminal investigators must be aware that intentional biologic aggression can initially present as typical unintentional disease outbreaks. Practitioners must also consider the need to properly maintain and preserve potential forensic evidence. This case demonstrates the key role public health practitioners may play in criminal investigations.

Keywords: arsenic; emergency response; epidemiology; forensic science; poisoning; terrorism

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: 1: Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Maine Department of Health & Human Services, Station #11 Augusta, ME 04333. 2: Northern New England Poison Center, 22 Bramhall Street, Portland, Maine 04102.

Publication date: 2010-07-01

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