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Thursday, March 09, 2006

A Larger Mystery

As entertainment reading, I enjoy mystery novels and, in particular, J. A. Jance. Her protagonist is Sheriff Joanna Brady of Bisbee, AZ. One novel is Partners in Crime which was written prior to September 11, 2001 and, as sometimes happens, the theme was an eerie portent of things to come.

That could still be true.

In her novel, a person was murdered by, unknowingly, ingesting Sodium azide, a highly…no, make that HIGHLY toxic chemical that is an odorless white solid. It can be mixed, as it was in Partners in Crime, with sugar or sugar substitute and then stirred into a glass of ice tea. The slightly bitter taste is covered up by the tea flavor. When introduced into water Sodium azide hydrolygizes into a very toxic gas, hydrogen azide. It may also react with heavy metal ions including silver, lead or copper. Metal azides are highly unstable, very explosive and easily synthesized. In other words, you don’t want to pour this stuff down a sink or, like the real life hospital employee who did just that, you could end up with a face full of this stuff…only you won’t be around to remember it.

Sodium azide has been compared to cyanide salts as each give similar symptoms, are rapidly acting and quite toxic.

It should also be mentioned this stuff is quite toxic to the aquatic environment and it’s recommended it be destroyed by oxidation. Any disposal should be carefully, very carefully, regulated and handled.

Sodium azide can be found in various industries including used as a chemical preservative in laboratories and hospitals, by the military in explosives and detonators and in agriculture for pest control.

According to the Center for Disease Control, Sodium azide is toxic if ingested or inhaled and is most dangerous in enclosed places where the gas is trapped. In open spaces the toxic gas disperses, thus rendering it less harmful outdoors. Sodium azide is less dense, or lighter, than air so it rises.

When this stuff is inhaled or ingested, the result is similar to carbon monoxide poisoning. Due to lack of oxygen cells die and because the heart and brain use a lot of oxygen, those are the most affected. People exposed to even a small amount of Sodium azide either by breathing, eating or absorbing it though their skin exhibit some, if not all, of the following symptoms within minutes:

dizziness, rapid breathing, weakness, nausea, vomiting, rapid heart rate, restlessness, cough (due to dust/gas exposure), low blood pressure, convulsions, loss of consciousness and respiratory failure – all of which can lead to death and usually does. Any survivors are at risk for brain and heart damage.

So, you don’t farm, you don’t work in a hospital or laboratory and you’re not in, nor employed by, the military so you’re not as risk. Right?

Think again.

By far, the most common use for Sodium azide is as the chemical found in every vehicle that has an airbag. All vehicles with an airbag has a container of Sodium azide waiting to be triggered by an electrical charge causing the canister of Sodium azide to explode and release nitrogen gas inside the airbag to deploy the airbag. During this process the Sodium azide is, according to OSHA website - - “completely consumed”. Their website also goes into some detailed explanation on what steps an EMT should take if they arrive at a vehicle accident where the air bag has not been deployed. (If you’re an EMT, this makes for interesting reading and if you're a Good Samaritan it makes you pause.)

Frankly, this stuff is frightening! I work with sheep every day and pox doesn’t frighten me as much as Sodium azide; at least there’s a vaccination and antidote for pox.

Oh, didn’t I mention…no known antidote for Sodium azide. And, if you come upon a person who is suspected of having ingested Sodium azide, do NOT perform CPR. Very bad move for you as you could, in turn, ingest this stuff and follow them down a dark path. And, if they are already vomiting, stay away from those fluids to avoid exposure.

Granted, the chances of a person ingesting this accidentally are slim, but what worries me are all those unused canisters of Sodium azide in un-deployed airbags in un-crashed vehicles all over the country. What happens to our water supply when, I mean IF, those canisters somehow, someway leak into our ground water? It sort of makes 9/11 pale in comparison, doesn’t it?

So, J. A. Jance, thanks for writing Partners in Crime (I think). It’s a great mystery, enjoyable read and she brings to the front some really good questions. The main one being, why is toxic, lethal Sodium azide still being used by the auto industry? Where are our elected legislative officials when we truly need protection? Where's Ralph Nadar?

Research for this article included Partners in Crime, Center for Disease Control and OSHA. I urge you to do your own research and ask your own questions.

A good number to keep on hand is the CDC Poison Control Center in Atlanta, GA - 1.800.222.1222


  • At Thursday, 09 March, 2006, Blogger D L Ennis said…

    Sandra, I think that this a very important issue, which should be taken seriously by us all…Great write!

  • At Thursday, 09 March, 2006, Blogger Leslie Shelor said…

    A good reminder of how hazardous the innocent seeming things around us can really be. Thanks for the heads up!

  • At Friday, 10 March, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    This is very interesting. I had not heard anything about this untill now. Thank you!

  • At Tuesday, 21 March, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    It's amazing how a little bit of information, in incompetent hands, can get blown out of proportion!

    First off, it's 'hydrolyzes', not 'hydrolygizes'. Second, sodium azide does not react with pure water. It reacts with strong acids like sulfuric or hydrochloric acid to form the toxic HYDROGEN azide gas.

    As you said, SODIUM azide is a white solid. Not a gas. It is not lighter than air.

    True, SODIUM azide is used as a propellant in air bags. It only reacts to form nitrogen (the stuff that makes up 78% of our air!) when an electrical charge is applied to it, or it's heated above 250C (482F).

    As far as airbag canisters leaking into the water...this is very revealing about the author's motives. Why would someone even write this if they hadn't already thought of it before?
    And, this scenario would require all the airbag canisters in all the cars in the world, somehow all getting together and all leaking all at the same time all at the same place, and enough strong acid being added at the same time to form HYDROGEN azide to even come close to causing a problem.

    Ugh! It's this author's kind of sensationalism and 'masquerading as an expert' that can really frighten people. For shame!


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