Many of us think dry ice is harmless and it is, if used properly. Dry ice has many useful purposes other than cooling food and Halloween effects. Dry ice can be used for putting out fires, repair, farming, industrial, and even for fumigation. However, if dry ice is used improperly it can cause burns, damage and even death.
Dry ice is basically solid CO2 or carbon dioxide. It is made from compressed CO2 and can be purchased as a block or pellets in many retail establishments. Dry ice is not like regular ice. Water freezes at 32 degrees F or 0 degrees C while CO2 freezes at -109 degrees F or -78.5 C. Dry ice melts or sublimates from a solid directly into gas.
Handling dry ice with bare hands could cause severe frostbite if handled for more than just a few seconds. Burning skin melts cells away; dry ice freezes the water in cells causing the cells to rupture and die, which is very similar to a burn and just as painful. Swallowing dry ice could not only burn your mouth and esophagus but the sublimation of dry ice in the stomach could cause a rupture and death.
The air we breathe is comprised of 78 percent nitrogen, 21 percent oxygen and 0.035 percent carbon dioxide. Since dry ice sublimates directly into a gas, a larger concentration of CO2 in the air could cause someone to pass out almost immediately. Since CO2 gas is carried by our hemoglobin in our blood CO2 can quickly deplete our oxygen in our bodies causing hypercapnia or carbon dioxide poisoning. Hypercapnia causes shortness of breath, rapid breathing which induces panic and in a short period of time unconsciousness. If the CO2 is not removed, the body organs die from lack of oxygen as well as the person.
Keeping dry ice in a confined area can be very dangerous. Sublimated CO2 gas is heavier than air and flows to low areas. If dry ice is kept in a confined space, great care must be taken to air out the area for at least 10 minutes before entering.
Care should be taken to never place dry ice in an air-tight container since sublimated gas expands and could cause the container to explode. An example of this is construction of a dry ice bomb. A plastic water bottle filled halfway with water, just a few dry ice chips and then sealed can be a deadly combination. The bottle rapidly expands until it explodes sending shredded plastic in all directions in a blast radius. If a person were to be standing in the blast radius the plastic shards travel at a high enough velocity to cause severe injury to body and eyes. If the injuries are severe enough without proper medical care a person could experience permanent damage or even death.
Don’t be afraid of dry ice, when used properly it serves many needs where water ice is not practical. Being aware of the hazards of dry ice can keep someone from having a great time enjoying the benefits of dry ice, or dying a pointless death from being careless or reckless.