Gloria Ramirez (January 11, 1963 – February 19, 1994) was a Riverside, California, woman dubbed "the toxic lady" by the media when several Riverside General Hospital workers became ill after exposure to her body and blood. Her case was the basis for a scene in one episode of the American TV series The X-Files (The Erlenmeyer Flask), an episode of the American TV drama Grey's Anatomy, a segment of a show on Discovery Communications' channel Investigation Discovery called "The New Detectives, a third season episode of Weird or What?, the "Stink Bomb" segment of the animated film Memories and an episode of Law & Order.
Gloria had two children and was a housewife. She was of Mexican descent and volunteered at an elementary school.
Emergency room visit
About 8:15 p.m. on the evening of February 19, 1994, Ramirez, suffering from the effects of advanced cervical cancer, was brought into the emergency room of Riverside General Hospital by paramedics. She was extremely confused and was suffering from tachycardia and Cheyne–Stokes respiration.
The medical staff injected her with diazepam, midazolam, and lorazepam to sedate her. When it became clear that Ramirez was responding poorly to treatment, the staff tried to defibrillate her heart; at that point several people saw an oily sheen covering Ramirez's body, and some noticed a fruity, garlic-like odor that they thought was coming from her mouth. A registered nurse named Susan Kane attempted to draw blood from Ramirez's arm and noticed an ammonia-like smell coming from the tube.
She passed the syringe to Julie Gorchynski, a medical resident, who noticed manila-colored particles floating in the blood. At this point, Kane fainted and was removed from the room. Shortly thereafter, Gorchynski began to feel nauseated. Complaining that she was lightheaded, she left the trauma room and sat at a nurse's desk. A staff member asked her if she was okay, but before she could respond she also fainted. Maureen Welch, a respiratory therapist who was assisting in the trauma room was the third to pass out. The staff was then ordered to evacuate all emergency room patients to the parking lot outside the hospital. Overall, 23 people became ill and 5 were hospitalized. A skeleton crew stayed behind to stabilize Ramirez. At 8:50pm, after 45 minutes of CPR and defibrillation, Ramirez was pronounced dead from kidney failure related to her cancer.
The county health department called in California's Department of Health and Human Services, which put two scientists, Drs. Ana Maria Osorio and Kirsten Waller, on the case. They interviewed 34 hospital staff who had been working in the emergency room on February 19. Using a standardized questionnaire, Osorio and Waller found that the people who had developed severe symptoms, such as loss of consciousness, shortness of breath, and muscle spasms, tended to have certain things in common. People who had worked within two feet of Ramirez and had handled her intravenous lines had been at high risk. But other factors that correlated with severe symptoms didn't seem to match a scenario in which fumes had been released: the survey found that those afflicted tended to be women rather than men, and they all had normal blood tests after the exposure. They believed the hospital workers suffered from mass hysteria.
Possible role of dimethyl sulfoxide
Gorchynski denied that she had been affected by mass hysteria and pointed to her own medical history as evidence. After the exposure, she spent two weeks in the intensive care unit with breathing problems. She developed hepatitis and avascular necrosis in her knees. Riverside Coroner’s Office contacted Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to investigate the incident. Livermore Labs postulated that Ramirez had been using dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO), a solvent used as a powerful degreaser, as a home remedy for pain. Users of this substance report that it has a garlic-like taste. Sold in gel form at hardware stores, it could also explain the greasy appearance of Ramirez's body. The Livermore scientists theorized that the DMSO in Ramirez's system might have built up owing to urinary blockage caused by her kidney failure. Oxygen administered by the paramedics would have combined with the DMSO to form dimethyl sulfone (DMSO2). DMSO2 is known to crystallize at room temperature, and crystals were observed in some of Ramirez's drawn blood. Electric shocks administered during emergency defibrillation could have then converted the DMSO2 into dimethyl sulfate (DMSO4), a powerful poisonous gas, exposure to which could have caused the reported symptoms of the emergency room staff. The Livermore scientists postulated on The New Detectives that the change in temperature of the blood drawn, from the 98.6 F of Ramirez' body to the 64 degrees Fahrenheit of the emergency room, may have contributed to its conversion from DMSO2 into DMSO4.
Alternative conclusion and burial
Two months after Ramirez died, her badly decomposed body was released for an independent autopsy and burial. The Riverside Coroner's Office hailed Livermore's DMSO conclusion as the probable cause of the hospital workers' symptoms, while her family disagreed. The Ramirez family's pathologist was unable to determine a cause of death because her heart was missing, her other organs were cross-contaminated with fecal matter, and her body was too badly decomposed. Ten weeks after she died, Ramirez was buried in Olivewood Memorial Park.
Status of technical forensic analysis
The possible chemical explanation for this incident by Patrick M. Grant of the Livermore Forensic Science Center is beginning to appear in basic forensic science textbooks. In Houck and Siegel's textbook, the authors opine that, although some weaknesses exist, the postulated scenario is "the most scientific explanation to date" and that "beyond this theory, no credible explanation has ever been offered for the strange case of Gloria Ramirez."
Everything that Grant ever speculated or concluded about this incident was evaluated by professional forensic scientists, chemists, and toxicologists, passed peer review in an accredited, refereed journal, and was published by Forensic Science International. The first paper was very technically detailed and did, in fact, give two potential chemical reaction mechanisms that may possibly have formed dimethyl sulfate from dimethyl sulfoxide and dimethyl sulfone precursors. The second communication gave supplemental support for the postulated chemical scenario as well as insight into some of the sociology and vested interests inherent in the case.
One of the letters proposed the production of toxic chloramine gas due to urine mixing with bleach in a nearby sink. This hypothesis, previously proposed to the investigators and to the medical personnel involved in the incident, was apparently never considered by all involved. The noxious effects of this gas are documented in the New England Journal of Medicine. Grant later addressed this chloramine scenario in his 1998 Response, and found it did not come close to fitting the ER incident.
- Dates from SSDI; Gloria C. Ramirez, SSN 549-57-9201.
- Lovece 1996, p. 105
- GORMAN, TOM (21 April 1994). "Woman at Core of Mystery Buried : Medicine: Gloria Ramirez is laid to rest two months after her death at a Riverside hospital, where fumes felled personnel...". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 11 June 2016.
- Stone, Richard (April 1995). "Analysis of a Toxic Death". Discover Magazine. Retrieved 11 June 2016.
- Dunning, Brian (3 January 2012). "Skeptoid #291: The Toxic Lady". Skeptoid. Retrieved 22 June 2017.
- The Straight Dope: What's the story on the "toxic lady?"
- Fundamentals of Forensic Science, M.M. Houck and J.A. Siegel, Academic Press, 2006, p. 46.
- Grant et al., "A Possible Chemical Explanation for the Events Associated with the Death of Gloria Ramirez at Riverside General Hospital", Forensic Science International 87: 219–237 (1997).
- Grant, "Response to Letters to the Editor Concerning the Riverside 'Mystery Fumes' Incident Analysis", Forensic Science International 94: 223–230 (1998).
- New England Journal of Medicine, Vol.341:848–849, Sept. 9, 1999, "Severe Lung Injury after Exposure to Chloramine Gas from Household Cleaners"