A routine procedure turned dangerous for Andy Warner, an Excelsior Springs Police Investigative Specialist. On Friday, October 20, 2023, Warner faced serious health concerns after the discovery of several potentially lethal chemicals in the community DEA drug takeback bin. These chemicals, many unseen for over half a century, included deadly compounds such as Arsenic Trioxide, Barium Sulfide, Mercury Cyanide, and Copper Arsenite.
- Inhaling arsine gas can cause gastrointestinal distress, headache, weakness, difficulty breathing, kidney and liver dysfunction, and the destruction of red blood cells.
- Ingestion of as little as 100mg of arsenic trioxide can be fatal.
- Exposure to barium sulfide can cause disturbances in heart rhythm, leading to palpitations, chest pain, and even cardiac arrest. Inhalation of barium sulfide fumes can cause respiratory irritation, coughing, and shortness of breath. In severe cases, respiratory failure can occur.
- Breathing small amounts of cyanide may cause headaches, dizziness, weakness, nausea, and vomiting. Larger amounts may cause gasping, irregular heartbeats, seizures, fainting, and even rapid death.
– US Center for Disease Control (CDC)
The bin was similar to a mailbox, with a chute where medications could be dropped into a tub. Upon opening the bin and removing the tub, Warner noticed several old-looking bottles, some with cork caps among the contents. As he began offloading the items by hand, he set a few of the delicate glass bottles aside out of curiosity. As he knelt over the tub, he was suddenly struck with a strong metallic smell. “It reminded me of when my dad would cut metal in the barn when I was little. A smell, just like hot metal, and instantly I started sweating,” Warner recalled.
In a panic, Warner left everything and went to a nearby restroom, where he took off his gloves and began to wash his arms and face, but he was overcome by nausea and began to vomit. “I knew I was exposed to something… those are typical signs of your body trying to get something out of your system,” he said.
Realizing that whatever was making him sick was still sitting in the open foyer of the police station, Warner put on new gloves and rushed back upstairs to dispose of the items. Holding his breath, he picked up the tub and began to dump the contents into bags that could be sealed. As he did, he noticed that several of the bottles had broken and a thick brown liquid was covering the bottles in the bin. In a matter of moments, he was able to seal off the items.
Then, Warner spotted the bottles he had initially set aside. His first thought was to dispose of them quickly, but then he realized knowing what the contents were might help him understand what had happened to him. “The thought that came to mind was, growing up in the country, if you get bit by a snake, you need to know if it’s a copperhead or a rattlesnake so you can tell the doctor,” Warner said.
So, as he began to bag up the remaining items, he snapped pictures with his cell phone. It was then he saw the labels. “I picked up Mercury Cyanide, and it was full, and I was like, ‘oh my gosh,’ and then I pick up the next one and it said arsenic… I had no idea what they were; some of them I couldn’t pronounce,” he reflected. In all, Warner estimates there were 50 of the antique bottles spread throughout the contents of the bin.
Warner stopped a fellow officer and asked him to call an ambulance. EMTs arrived and began to monitor his vitals, and they called the Poison Control Center. The ancient chemicals stumped the helpline but they put Warner in contact with a toxicologist from the St. Louis area. Warner said the toxicologist told him she’d only ever seen bottles like the ones he’d shared with her in books. “She told me Poison Control hadn’t had contact with these substances for over half a century,” Warner stated.
Doctors conducted blood labs for heavy metals just to make sure there wasn’t anything remaining in Warner’s system. After his blood work, he was sent home where he experienced lingering headaches over the course of the weekend, but he returned to work on Monday (10/23). A husband, father of three, and a 15-year law enforcement veteran, Warner said he’s uncertain whether there will be any long-term effects because he can’t say for certain what chemical he was exposed to.
The mysterious incident took a surprising turn when, according to ESPD, a representative from the Excelsior Springs Museum and Archives admitted on social media to inadvertently placing the hazardous substances in the bin. The chemicals were apparently historical artifacts from an old local pharmacy that had been donated to the museum. In their statement, museum officials commented, “We’re very glad the officer is okay,” but offered no further explanation for the oversight.
Warner firmly believes that while the items might not have been placed in the bins with malicious intent, it was certainly irresponsible of whoever did so. He emphasized, “Actions have consequences… When it says poison and there are pictures of skulls and crossbones on the label, maybe it shouldn’t be left at the police department.” Warner further stressed the importance of accountability, cautioning individuals against mindlessly discarding potentially harmful substances by simply deeming it “not my problem anymore.” Instead, he suggested that those unsure about disposing of dangerous items should, at the very least, reach out to the appropriate authorities for guidance.
The drug takeback program, authorized under Missouri law, was established in 2017, allowing local law enforcement to collect and dispose of controlled substances. However, this incident raises questions about the program’s ability to handle hazardous materials outside of its intended scope, particularly when the bins are accessible to the public around the clock.
Warner said he believes the drop-off bins are a significant risk and hopes they’re permanently removed. He notes that often, civilians or volunteers, not trained professionals, handle the bins. Apart from this incident, he said most people wouldn’t believe the types of material dumped into the bins, having found hypodermic needles, loose pills, and trash. He said that this location alone disposes of around 600 pounds of unlogged materials annually, and in his opinion, managing these materials would require a dedicated full-time position even in a small community like Excelsior Springs.
Somewhat ironically, this past Saturday (10/28) was National Drug Takeback Day. But this incident and the subsequent removal of the drug takeback box forced the local SAFE committee to withdraw mailers they had prepared for distribution. With no plan to bring back the drug takeback box at the Excelsior Springs Police Department, citizens must look for other options for safe and approved drop-off locations. To see a list of authorized drop-off locations, you can search the DEA website: https://apps.deadiversion.usdoj.gov/pubdispsearch/