Friday, May 1, 2015

Weird: deaths from hydrocarbons?

What is that plume showing, anyway?
Credit: Wall Street Journal
Busy day today (obviously), but I wanted to note this chemical mystery from the Wall Street Journal from a while back in an article entitled "Why Did These Oil Workers Die?" by Alexandra Berzon:
The deaths of Trent Vigus and at least nine other oil-field workers over the past five years had haunting similarities. Each worker was doing a job that involved climbing on top of a catwalk strung between rows of storage tanks and opening a hatch. 
There were no known witnesses to any of the men’s deaths. Their bodies were all found lying on top of or near the tanks. Medical examiners generally attributed the workers’ deaths primarily or entirely to natural causes, often heart failure. 
But in the past few months, there has been a shift. Though still unsure of the exact cause of the deaths, government agencies and some industry-safety executives are now acknowledging a pattern and are focusing on the possible role played in the deaths by hydrocarbon chemicals, which can lead to quick asphyxiation or heart failure when inhaled in large quantities. 
In the meantime, federal agencies and industry-safety groups are planning to send out a joint alert to the oil industry as early as this week, warning of the potential for imminent danger from inhaling hydrocarbons, according to several people involved in the effort. Much of the industry remains ignorant of the possible risks, they say...
I would think this is about a lack of oxygen, but hey, I could be wrong. Any ideas?

*Can't get to the article? Google the title.


  1. I wouldn't be surprised at all. I was once deactivating ~0.15 g polyolefin catalyst containing methylaluminoxane (MAO) with dilute sulfuric acid. Noticing gas evolution, I vented the screw cap vial (~20 mL). For the next 15 seconds, I had an intense headache and dizziness. It caught the attention of my coworker, who was shooting the breeze with me. "You OK? You just got really quiet."

    Looking into it further, headache and dizziness are often reported by people shortly before sewer gas explosions. Higher concentrations may well cause instant incapacitation followed by death.


  2. What was in those tanks? If it was crude oil, then it could be H2S.

  3. It would be interesting to compare the time of day and the recorded wind speed at the time. If this happens in the afternoon, when there is no wind, then I would suspect low boiling hydrocarbons offgassing from the crude because sun heats up the tanks during the day, and if there is no wind the vapors/gases can pool on top of these ginormous tanks. Should you become anesthetized/suffer a seizure or arrhythmia and fall down into the vapor blanket sitting on the tank, you won't come back to. An obvious solution would be to hire more people and do these inspections in pairs.

    Also, I wonder if this spate of deaths is a more recent phenomenon, and if the incidents happened mostly with shale oil obtained by fracking. (It contains far more volatiles than conventional crude)

  4. It could be work-related heart attacks blamed on chemicals.

    Some companies require workers to put on 40-60lbs of safety gear to climb the catwalks. Combined with a hot day, such physical assertion could be deadly for a 50+ year old who has a heart condition and a potbelly. (Many fit that physical description at a couple plants with those rules.) I know a guy who went into congestive heart failure after a bad day at work.


      It's pretty clear that's not the case.

  5. I've often noticed a larger proportion of dead birds on the roofs and around chemistry buildings. Proverbial canaries in the coal mine?