OYS | What is liquid nitrogen and how is it dangerous?

Published: Feb. 6, 2017 at 5:31 AM EST
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Monday, Feb. 6, 2017

AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) -- One Richmond County deputy has died after trying to save workers in a chemical spill at Xytex Corporation in Augusta.

According to the Augusta Fire Department, Sgt. Greg Meagher inhaled liquid nitrogen and that is believed to have caused his death. Just what exactly is liquid nitrogen? It's a substance that while non-toxic, is extremely cold and has the ability to cause significant injury or death.

What is it used for? According to About.com Chemistry, Liquid nitrogen is used in a lot of cooling applications, from making ice cream to chilling cocktail glasses and cooling refrigerators. When used in these ways, the chemical vaporizes into a gas that is harmless.

The temperature of liquid nitrogen at normal pressures is between 63 Kelvin and 77.2 K (which is roughly -346°F and -320.44°F). This is cold enough to cause instantaneous frostbite.

Extensive contact from liquid nitrogen could cause burns to the skin, and ingesting liquid nitrogen would cause severe damage to the mouth, esophagus, and stomach. As it vaporizes, it becomes nitrogen gas which exerts pressure, which could leak into tissues and lead to perforations.

In the absence of oxygen or in low-levels of oxygen, when liquid nitrogen turns into nitrogen gas, it can cause inert gas asphyxiation.

According to the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, at least 80 people died due to accidental nitrogen asphyxiation between 1992 and 2002. Most of these incidents occurred in industrial

plants, laboratories, and medical facilities.

Further, the board says that "breathing an oxygen deficient atmosphere can have serious and immediate effects, including unconsciousness after only one or two breaths. The exposed person has no warning and cannot sense that the oxygen level is too low."

Based on what we know about Xytex, they are a company that provides cryopreservation for cells and tissues. They store a number of different specimens including cord blood, embryo, eggs, ovarian tissue, and sperm.

According to their website, Xytex says their work is "conducted under the legal authority of the United States federal government and also the governments of California, Georgia, Maryland and New York." They have an A+ rating from the Better Business Bureau.