Ex-Merck chemist faces prison for allegedly dumping cyanide

A former Merck chemist in Pennsylvania is facing criminal charges for allegedly stealing potassium cyanide from a lab and later dumping it into a storm drain. (Merck/YouTube)

A former senior analytical chemist at Merck is facing criminal charges in Pennsylvania for allegedly stealing potassium cyanide from a lab and pouring it into a storm drain after finding out about an investigation. 

According to the police, Richard O'Rourke stole 220 grams of the dangerous chemical in December to use as a rodent poison. Another senior colleague at Merck noticed O'Rourke take the chemical, pour it into a beaker, and then into a Nalgene water bottle, the police said. 

Merck alerted authorities, and O'Rourke heard about it, police said. Fearing he'd be found out, O'Rourke dumped the cyanide into a storm drain, potentially endangering the water supply.

He faces charges of causing or risking catastrophe, theft, receiving stolen property and recklessly endangering another person. Causing or risking catastrophe is a felony that can carry up to a 20-year prison term.

The chemist's job responsibilities didn't entail dealing with the dangerous chemical, according to police.

Merck first contacted the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, who "immediately attempted to locate the dump site of the potassium cyanide and began monitoring the water supply for signs of the chemical and toxicity," authorities said.

Officials tested water systems for two weeks before determining that a hard rainfall sufficiently flushed the system, according to a release

A spokesperson for Merck said it "cannot provide specifics as this is an ongoing investigation." 

"Merck takes this situation very seriously as the safety of our employees, the public and the environment is paramount to us," the company's statement read. "As you can see in the charges, the employee’s actions violated the law, and the employee is no longer with the company." 

The drugmaker said it's continuing to cooperate with authorities. O'Rourke posted a $35,000 bond and is awaiting a preliminary hearing next month.