Volume 33, Issue 4 (July 1988)
Medical Evaluation of the Victims of the 1986 Lake Nyos Disaster
A cloud of carbon dioxide gas, with an estimated volume of 1 km3 was released from Lake Nyos, a volcanic crater lake in Cameroon, Africa, causing 1700 to 2000 human fatalities as well as killing thousands of livestock and wild animals. At the request of the Cameroonian Government, the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance of the U.S. Department of State sent a multidisciplinary team which included 2 forensic pathologists to assist the Government of Cameroon in investigating this natural disaster. The medical evaluation was concentrated in 3 areas: the autopsy of human and animal fatalities, examination and interview of survivors, and examination of the scene of the disaster. Toxicologic specimens were obtained at autopsy, and numerous samples of lake water were collected. The autopsy findings were consistent with asphyxia. The results of chemical analyses excluded many volatiles but not carbon dioxide as the toxic agent. The exact source of this gas continues to be a subject of a heated geologic debate, but termentation of organic materials in the lake water has been eliminated on the basis of C14 isotope studies. This investigation underlines the value of forensic pathologists in epidemiological studies and in the examination of living persons.