Before he died, Janet Webster made her brother a promise.
It was August and her brother — Webster asked that I not use his name — was lying in a coma in a hospital bed in Central Hospital. He had been found by paramedics unconscious in his car, which came to rest oddly in a parking lot, with the engine still running. It was a hot day, and the air conditioning was running cold. In the back seat were five boxes of mangoes, being kept cold by dry ice.
Her brother owned a delivery business, but he rarely dealt with produce and almost never with dry ice. While at the hospital as her brother lay in a coma, Webster started typing “dry ice” and “toxicity” into Google on her phone. She was convinced the dry ice had something to do with his death.
The doctors said that was unlikely. Her family did not believe her.
She would not be stopped.
“When I went in to say my goodbyes to him, I made a promised to him that I would make sure this never happened again,” Webster says. “My obligation to my brother is to make sure everyone knows about this. He died because he was not aware of the dangers.”
Webster, who is 53, lives in Miami and works for the Miami Herald, where she is a writer. When she brought her story to me, I, too, did not believe it. Death by dry ice seemed like one of those urban myths that no one believes and would soon be a page on snopes.com or some other myth-busting website.
But while they are rare, deaths from exposure to carbon dioxide from dry ice in a closed space do happen.
An assistant medical examiner from New York, Edward Martens, wrote about the phenomenon in his 1940 book, “The Doctor Looks at Murder,” which, among other deaths, looked at those of five longshoreman found in a sunken boat carrying fruit kept cold with dry ice.
The National Institutes of Health maintains several scholarly articles that have examined such deaths. What’s common among them is that the people who died were in a closed space with no flow of outside air.
Webster is sure that is how her brother died.
That morning, her son, who worked for his uncle’s delivery company, called his mom, worried. They couldn’t find Webster’s brother. He had left to make delivery the mangoes but hadn’t checked in and wasn’t answering his phone.
When Webster finally got an answer it was a doctor at the hospital. Her brother was in a coma.
“We realized pretty quickly that it didn’t look good,” she said.
As she started telling others about her dry-ice theory, family members, including her husband, did not believe her.
“They thought I was grasping at straws,” she says.
But her brother hadn’t had a heart attack or a stroke, the doctors said. His coma was unexplainable.
Here’s how Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Deborah Blum describes how …Read more