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Brown Student Poisons Ex-Girlfriend with Iodine-125


Providence police arrested a Brown University graduate student on Friday and charged him with poisoning two fellow students - one of whom is his ex-girlfriend - with a radioactive chemical he allegedly stole from a Brown laboratory.

According to Brown News Bureau Director Mark Nickel, Cheng Gu, a student in molecular pharmacology, prepared a chicken and vegetable dish laced with iodine-125, which he then served Yuanyuan Xiao and her roommate James O'Brien at their home.

Xiao is also a graduate student in molecular pharmacology. O'Brien is a Resumed Undergraduate Education student.

Gu faces five felony charges: assault against O'Brien, domestic assault against Xiao, larceny for theft of the radioactive material from Brown, poisoning O'Brien, and poisoning Xiao.

Captain John Ryan of the Providence Police told the Associated Press that he believed the attack to be motivated by "some kind of love interest."

Nickel said that neither Xiao nor O'Brien have suffered any serious health consequences as a result of the exposure, due to the relatively small amount they consumed.

They "received about as much radioactive substance as you would in a normal medical procedure" in which iodine-125 is used, Nickel said. "There doesn't appear to be any immediate health risks."

Dr. Robert Marshall, assistant director at the Department of Health, agreed.

"This is more of a research isotope than a dangerous radioactive substance," he told The Boston Globe. "Its half-life is very short -about six months - and it doesn't appear that there was any dangerous exposure."

Nickel said that officials first discovered the alleged poisoning on Wednesday, when Xiao said she was preparing to perform an experiment. Xiao was tested for radiation with a Geiger counter before she entered the lab, which Nickel said is standard procedure for experiments involving radioactive materials. The results of this initial test are later compared to a test taken when the researcher exits the lab.

On Wednesday, Xiao tested abnormally high on the initial test, prompting Risk Management officials to conduct an investigation into the cause of the Geiger counter results.

After finding no evidence of contamination in the laboratory, investigators went to Xiao's home, where they discovered the iodine-125-laced dish in the refrigerator, Nickel said.

Xiao told the investigators that both she and O'Brien had eaten the dish, which she said had been left by Gu, her former boyfriend.

According to Nickel, iodine-125 is a radioactive isotope used to treat and diagnose thyroid conditions, and is used in Brown laboratories to tag proteins in experiments.

Gu told the Providence Police that he had taken the radioactive chemical from a lab at Brown, said Nickel. Although Nickel could not confirm whether or not this is true, he said that an investigation is underway.

"The Department of Health suggested that we conduct an inventory" of our labs, Nickel said. "We are doing that now."

While the evidence suggests that Gu did steal the substance from a Brown laboratory, Nickel would not speculate as to how he got it out of the lab.

He said that while Gu was working in a laboratory, his experiments did not involve iodine-125. Had he been using this substance, Gu would have been subject to the same radiation tests as Xiao. In this case, the Geiger counter would have registered the increased amounts of radiation on him.

Nickel said that iodine-125 is kept locked up at all times, except when it is being used in an experiment.

"As far as the University's procedures for holding and storing the material," everything was done correctly, Nickel said. "There is no indication of any problems with security."

However, when the substance is being used, he said that it is necessary to rely on the experimenter's judgment.

Marie Stoeckel, chief of the occupational and radiological health office of the Department of Health, confirmed that this degree of human error is difficult to overcome.

"Internal security is a very challenging issue if someone is not acting in a moral, legal, and ethical way," Stoeckel told The Providence Journal. "Our sense is that [Brown was] following all security measures that were appropriate."

Nickel pointed out that if it weren't for the safety procedures Brown already has in place, Xiao's high level of radioactivity may have gone unnoticed. He praised Risk Management officials Steve Morin and Ninni Jacob for uncovering the poisoning through their routine testing procedures.

"There's no way to tell that this woman may have been contaminated," Nickel said, had it not been for Morin and Jacob. "This is an example of things working the way they're supposed to work."

Executive Vice President for Public Affairs and University Relations Laura Freid echoed Nickel's approval of the handling of the situation, by both Brown Risk Management officials and police officers.

[Brown Daily Herald, Nov. 16]

Princeton appointment protested

A handful of Princeton University students joined about 30 other people assembled outside the University's main gate Saturday to protest the appointment of Peter Singer as the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at the University Center for Human Values.

Carrying posters calling Singer "P.U.'s Professor of Death," the protesters stood along Nassau Street for two hours, distributing flyers and excerpts of Singer's writings.

Singer's appointment has raised debate among local residents, faculty and students because of his controversial views about human and animal rights.

In his book, "Practical Ethics," Singer compares human life to animal life, arguing that simply because people are human does not mean that their lives are more valuable than those of animals. His views on euthanasia and animal rights come from a belief that life necessitates rationality, autonomy and self-consciousness.

Marie Tasy, director of Public and Legislative Affairs for New Jersey Right to Life noted that Singer's presence at other universities has caused protest by students and faculty.

At the protest, Tasy said she felt Singer was "trying to establish a new system of ethics" for society. "He's saying we should be able to judge the quality of life for another human being," she said. "That's a very dangerous philosophy.

Director of Communications and Publications Justin Harmon said in a phone interview yesterday that Singer's appointment should not be viewed as a University endorsement of his views. "You don't hire a professor to propagate any particular views. We hired Professor Singer because he is an extremely qualified scholar," Harmon said. "Most in his field will agree he's quite strong.

"His appointment is intended to form issues of social import for scholarly debate," Harmon explained. "I'm sure you will find his perspectives to be the subject of lively debate on campus."

Jennifer Hotz, president of the Mercer Country chapter of New Jersey Right to Life, said she feels the University acted inappropriately by hiring Singer.

"Princeton University had an opportunity to hire someone who advocates life-affirming values. Instead, they chose someone who advocates the killing of disabled infants," she said.

Eric Wang, one of the few students present at the protest, said he attributed the lack of student involvement at the event to a "general sense of apathy."

Patti Staley, president of the Mercy County chapter of Citizens Concerned for Life, said she is very disturbed by Singer's appointment to the University. "We feel that Princeton has a responsibility to society, and the appointment of a man who feels handicapped people are not valuable is irresponsible," she said. "[Singer's] appointment is plunging us deeper into the culture of death."

Student government senator Carlos Lazatin, who was also in attendance at the protest, said he thinks the University has not adequately explained the appointment. "Bringing Singer here sends the wrong statement. The University can't avoid this with the argument of academic freedom.

[Daily Princetonian, Nov. 16]