Nitrogen, an Otherwise Inert Gas, can be Deadly

The April 2021 issue of Chemical Engineering Progress includes a Process Safety Beacon article (not yet online) called “Recent Nitrogen Fatalities are a Vivid Reminder.” Nitrogen is not in any way toxic, and 79% of what we breathe is nitrogen. Deadly problems arise when the nitrogen displaces oxygen because our bodies cannot detect oxygen-deficient atmospheres.

The urgent need to breathe we feel when we hold our breaths long enough is not due to oxygen depletion but to carbon dioxide accumulation. A person in an oxygen-deficient atmosphere continues to exhale carbon dioxide so these atmospheres give little if any warning of danger. Would-be rescuers also die when they enter confined spaces (hence the need for confined space controls) without air or oxygen supplies.

Georgia nitrogen deaths: Leak kills six at Gainesville poultry plant” is the incident cited in the Beacon article.

Valero Refinery Asphyxiation Incident includes an excellent video. In this case, the victim was close to an opening from which nitrogen was coming out to displace oxygen.

Disclaimer; nothing in this blog constitutes engineering or OH&S advice.

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