ChemMatters | OC TOBER/NOVEMBER 2017 5
ONE HOT AUGUST DAY IN 2014, THE FOOTBALL TEAM AT DOUGLAS COUNTY HIGH SCHOOL NEAR ATLANTA, GEORGIA, WAS FINISHING PRACTICE. Seventeen-year-old Zyrees Oliver was overcome by the heat and collapsed. He was taken to the hospital where, several days later, he died. Doctors
determined that his death was not a result of dehydration or heat stroke, as you may
expect—he died because he had consumed too much water.
Can drinking too much water really kill someone? Doctors explained to Zyrees’s family that his brain
swelled because of excess water in his body. His family confirmed that Zyrees had, indeed, consumed a
lot of water—two gallons, in fact, and two additional gallons of Gatorade®, which is mostly water.
Zyrees’s condition is known as hyponatremia, which more commonly affects marathon runners. In
2002, the forecast for the Boston Marathon was warm. Runner Cynthia Lucero prepared by drinking
water before the race, and she drank Gatorade® while running—she passed out around mile 22. She was
immediately transported to the hospital and died three days later from hyponatremia.
We are warned repeatedly of the dangers of dehydration and told to stay hydrated in hot weather,
especially while doing vigorous activities. Zyrees and Cynthia took efforts to drink fluids during vigorous
activity. So why did they die? Let’s look a little deeper.
Water is found everywhere in our bodies, both inside our cells (intracellular) and outside them (
extracellular), including in blood. Cells shrink if the amount of water inside the cell is too low. They can swell
and burst if the amount of water is too high. The water content of a cell is dependent on the total salt,
or electrolyte, concentration. Electrolyte balance is a key factor in keeping our cells healthy and
Several common electrolytes are found in the body. Each serves a specific and
important role, but most are in some part responsible for maintaining the balance
of water between the intracellular and extracellular environments. In the extracellular compartments, water is found between the cells in tissue and blood. For
the average person, about two-thirds of the body’s water is intracellular, but
water is constantly exchanged between the intracellular and extracellular
cells. This process is critically important for hydration, nerve impulses,
muscle function (including the heart), and pH level.
How Much Is Too Much?
By Raima Larter