Dry ice is nothing to be trifled with. While this solid form of carbon dioxide is not dangerous when stored appropriately and used correctly, it can present some extremely hazardous risks when mishandled (1).
Carbon dioxide itself is not toxic, but it can build up pressure or replace the normal, breathable air, which in turn can cause severe health problems to anyone trying to breath in the compromised air (1). One death and one hospitalization in the state of Washington are two recent examples of what mishandled dry ice is capable of!
The Tragic Accident
An ice cream salesman understandably kept coolers filled with dry ice in the back of his car in order to properly freeze his ice cream merchandise (2). It wasn’t until his wife borrowed the car in order to take his mother home, however, that problems occurred. According to authorities, vapors from the dry ice crept out of the coolers, entered the car, and proceeded to flood the cabin with carbon dioxide gas (2). The two women were found hours later, still inside the car on the side of the road, mere blocks from the house (2).
Hildegard Whiting died of suffocation at the age of 77 inside her son’s carbon-dioxide filled vehicle, according to Pierce County Medical Examiners (2). Whiting’s daughter-in-law was later rushed to the hospital in critical condition, thanks to the lack of oxygen in the car cabin caused by the dry ice leakage (2). Despite the fact that dry ice is usually considered harmless, certain circumstances can result in deadly events.
Staying Safe With Dry Ice
Dry ice storage is vital in keeping this substance safe (3). It must be kept in an insulated container, the thicker the better, but it must never be kept in a completely airtight container (3). Without proper ventilation, the dry ice could cause the container to expand and possibly explode (3). You should never store dry ice in rooms not properly ventilated, cellars, autos, or boat holds – like the trunk of the car (3).
Martin Cohen, senior lecturer for the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Science at the University of Washington, said of the case in Washington, “Over time, [the ice] evaporated directly from solid to produce carbon dioxide gas.”
Experts explain that the air we breathe is made up of 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen and 0.035% carbon dioxide (4). Since dry ice evaporates directly into gas, that creates a larger portion of CO2, which can cause someone to pass out immediately (4). CO2 can swiftly deplete the oxygen within our bodies, causing hypercapnia, which is carbon dioxide poisoning (4). This tends to cause a shortness of breath, rapid breathing, and often an induced panic over a short period of time, which ultimately all result in unconsciousness (4). If the CO2 is not removed within the appropriate amount of time, then the body’s organs end up dying due to the lack of oxygen (4).
Without using the proper storage and handling techniques, dry ice can be a dangerous substance capable of severe injury and death. Treating this substance with care and responsibility is vital to ensuring the safety of yourself and anyone around you who might come into contact with the dry ice.
Written by Abbey Ryan-Elder