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 dry ice can be a silent killer:
“Mostly this is nothing to worry about — unlike its chemical cousin, carbon monoxide (CO), carbon dioxide is not acutely poisonous — and, in fact, the chilly vapors lifting off dry ice have been used to create fog effects in places ranging from theaters to Halloween parties,” she wrote in the Scientific American in 2011. “But there is a risk. Carbon dioxide is denser than oxygen-rich air and can, notably in confined spaces, essentially displace the breathable atmosphere, settling into its surroundings like an invisible but suffocating blanket.”
Earlier this year, a delivery driver in Columbus, Ohio, escaped the fate suffered by Webster’s brother.
Wade Carman was making a delivery of goods kept cold on dry ice. The package on dry ice had broken its seal and was leaking carbon dioxide into the vehicle, which had the windows closed and air conditioning on, according to a Fox 28 television report. When he didn’t arrive at his destination, a co-worker tracked the vehicle by GPS.
Carman had passed out but was revived.
“Someone had found him passed out on the side of the road,” his wife, Barbara Carman, told the television station. “They said if it had been a couple more minutes … he would’ve died.”
I spoke to the people at ACI dry ice, a provider of dry ice in Miami and I was told they make sure their clients are aware of the dangers of their product. So far none of their clients has suffered any life threatening accidents.
Webster knows there may never be definitive proof that dry ice killed her brother.
But she’s sounding the alarm bells anyway and our lawfirm is very happy to bring her message to the world!
“It’s happened to too many people,” Webster says. “I just want to get the word out so people are warned.”