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Thread: Do human bodies explode when decompressed?

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    Do human bodies explode when decompressed?

    Say one was to put a human being in a decompression chamber, turn it on, wait for it to pressurise, and then open the hatch. Would the person explode as per folklore, or would something else (probably equally agonizing) happen to them? I know human being don't explode in the vacuum of space, but I wasn't sure what would happen if there was still an atmosphere when you suddenly decompressed.

    Supposedly this happened to someone in Florida about 30 years ago, but the whole thing smells fishy to me.

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    Human Body in a Vacuum, courtesy of NASA.

    Nick

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    ^ I'm not talking about a vacuum, I'm talking about what would happen if a human being were to suddenly go from, say, 7 atm of pressure to normal air pressure.

    - Maha Vailo

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    No, a body wouldn't explode under those circumstances but the person would likely get a case of the bends. It would be equivalent to a diver shooting to the surface from roughly 200 feet down. Painful, dangerous, potentially deadly but not explosive.

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    There is some discussion in this column:

    ...That said, there are circumstances involving explosive decompression in which your body might be torn to bits. This would result not from the exposure to a vacuum per se but from injuries caused by the accompanying air blast. I have here a medical journal article about a case of explosive decompression that killed four divers. (They went from high pressure to normal rather than normal to vacuum, but same idea.)

    The bodies of three of the dead men were outwardly normal. The fourth man, however, was forced through a narrow hatch by the rush of escaping air and his body, to be blunt, was reduced to pot roast.
    ...
    My guess is that the ones not forced through a small opening died from pulmonary (well, whole body, I guess) embolism when the dissolved nitrogen and other gases in their boiled out of solution. IOW, their blood stream would have filled with tons of small bubbles.

    Nick

    Edit; this would have been much higher pressure change than the 7 atmospheres you mentioned. As Larry indicated, that would result in an "ordinary" but severe case of the bends.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Maha Vailo View Post
    ^ I'm not talking about a vacuum, I'm talking about what would happen if a human being were to suddenly go from, say, 7 atm of pressure to normal air pressure.
    Nope, they won't explode. Far less reason to explode, in fact, since in this scenario the ambient pressure never falls below the vapour pressure of water at body temperature.
    Gas ebulism will be a potential problem, the magnitude of which will depend on how long the person has been at high pressure. Barotrauma to lungs and other gas-containing organs is a danger. Loss of consciousness will in this scenario be due to circulatory failure because of ebulism, rather than than the rapid hypoxaemia of vacuum exposure.

    Grant Hutchison

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    They wouldn't blow up, but nitrogen dissolved in their blood and tissues would bubble like a shaken cola bottle that's opened too fast.

    Instant bends, from 7 atm. definitely fatal if they've been at that pressure for long enough to equalize the gas pressure in the body with that of the pressure chamber.

    On the other hand, if it's a simple fast cycle, then they should be ok.
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    Quote Originally Posted by HenrikOlsen View Post
    They wouldn't blow up, but nitrogen dissolved in their blood and tissues would bubble like a shaken cola bottle that's opened too fast.

    Instant bends, from 7 atm. definitely fatal.
    It takes time for nitrogen to transfer to solution, one lung-full at a time, so it would depend on how long one spent breathing at seven atmospheres.

    I seem to recall James Bond killing a baddie by pressurizing him rapidly and then immediately breaking the window of the compression chamber. (Baddie exploded. Sigh.) The correct strategy for the baddie in this case would be to stop breathing as the chamber pressurized, while maintaining an open airway and yawning to ensure that airway pressures equilbrate. Maintain the open airway and yawn as the window breaks. Then reach through the broken window and smack James Bond's head off the side of the tank as punishment for his poor understanding of physiology.

    (Why don't deep-diving mammals get the bends when they surface? There are a number of physiological adaptations, but the most significant one is a simple physical limitation. They can only ever add one lung-full of nitrogen to the large amount of nitrogen already dissolved in their tissues at sea-level.)

    Grant Hutchison

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    I expanded on my post before reading your comment to basically say the same.

    BTW, could damage be done to the lungs if the person in the chamber tried to hold his breath as the pressure dropped or it it physically impossible to hold it back enough?
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    How long (or short) would it take for a person to die in these circumstances?

    - Maha Vailo

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    Quote Originally Posted by HenrikOlsen View Post
    BTW, could damage be done to the lungs if the person in the chamber tried to hold his breath as the pressure dropped or it it physically impossible to hold it back enough?
    It's certainly possible to breath-hold a high enough pressure to cause pulmonary barotrauma. Air is squeezed out of the lung into the surrounding tissues (surgical emphysema), into the lung capillaries (gas embolism) or into the pleural cavity (pneumothorax). People making really hard expiratory efforts at sea level can produce all these injuries; the difference for the depressurizing diver is that the gas squeezed into the wrong places then expands as the ambient pressure falls, magnifying the effect and increasing the resulting injury.

    Grant Hutchison

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    Quote Originally Posted by Maha Vailo View Post
    How long (or short) would it take for a person to die in these circumstances?
    Well, as Henrik and I have said, a brief overpressure and explosive decompression may not kill you.
    But the mechanism of death for someone with massive ebulism due to decompression is circulatory arrest, which kills you in a few minutes. (CPR is ineffective in these cases, because the circulation is full of compressible gas.)

    Grant Hutchison

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    BTW, could damage be done to the lungs if the person in the chamber tried to hold his breath as the pressure dropped or it it physically impossible to hold it back enough?

    I've watched some programs on training submariners. Part of their training is to enter a tall water tank and rise to the top as shown in this YouTube video. The trainees are taught to exhale on the way up. Reportedly, failing to exhale can and has been fatal.

    On the other hand, some freedivers can hold their breath and rapidly plunge over 200 meters deep and ascend to the surface on a single breath. It's a dangerous extreme sport.

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    Quote Originally Posted by grant hutchison View Post
    I seem to recall James Bond killing a baddie by pressurizing him rapidly and then immediately breaking the window of the compression chamber. (Baddie exploded. Sigh.)

    In Licence to Kill, but Bond didn't do it. The main villain did, to kill an underling he thought had stolen money from him.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Larry Jacks View Post
    On the other hand, some freedivers can hold their breath and rapidly plunge over 200 meters deep and ascend to the surface on a single breath. It's a dangerous extreme sport.
    Like other diving mammals, freedivers have a single lung-full of sea-level air. This becomes horribly compressed as they dive (diaphragm pushed up into chest cavity), and re-expands to a normal volume when they surface. So they don't get conventional pulmonary barotrauma, but can get damage from the grossly distorted anatomy at depth, as well as pulmonary oedema from the rapid reexpansion as they rise towards the surface.
    Their big problem is the fact that the compression at depth keeps the partial pressure of oxygen in their lungs high, despite the fact it is being continuously absorbed by their circulation. When they start to surface and their lung volume increases, the partial pressure of oxygen in the alveoli falls rapidly, and oxygen actually diffuses out of their circulation into the expanding lungs.
    So they need to turn around at depth well before they reach their hypoxaemic limit, to allow for the abrupt onset of severe hypoxaemia during the rise to the surface. More than one freediver has reached the surface having a hypoxic convulsion, and some have died of it.

    Grant Hutchison

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    Quote Originally Posted by WHarris View Post
    In Licence to Kill, but Bond didn't do it. The main villain did, to kill an underling he thought had stolen money from him.
    Ah, thanks. I just remember Anthony Zerbe's head swelling up and bursting.

    Grant Hutchison

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    Quote Originally Posted by Larry Jacks View Post
    I've watched some programs on training submariners. Part of their training is to enter a tall water tank and rise to the top as shown in this YouTube video. The trainees are taught to exhale on the way up. Reportedly, failing to exhale can and has been fatal.

    On the other hand, some freedivers can hold their breath and rapidly plunge over 200 meters deep and ascend to the surface on a single breath. It's a dangerous extreme sport.
    The submariners entered the pool through a hatch at the bottom, right?

    The difference is that the freedivers were on the same breath they took when they were at the top. As they race back up, the air in their lungs will expand only to the same volume it was when they took the breath. No problem.

    The submariners took their breath under compression. You release air as you rise so that your lungs don't overfill and rupture due to air expansion.
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    Just last week in Santa Cruz a lady going for her open water certification had an equipment malfunction at 65 feet, paniced according to the news and went straight to the surface. She died before they could get her ashore.
    Time wasted having fun is not time wasted - Lennon
    (John, not the other one.)

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    So what you'd probably see/hear is the victim screaming and then going into a seizure, and finally a contorted corpse with blood pouring from its mouth.

    Sounds an awful lot more gruesome than "Cleanup, Aisle 3!"

    Which begs the question: Why is it that movies and TV shows perpetuate this legend? And where did the "humans-explode-in-a-vacuum" legend begin?

    - Maha "under (no) pressure" Vailo

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    Quote Originally Posted by Maha Vailo View Post
    So what you'd probably see/hear is the victim screaming and then going into a seizure, and finally a contorted corpse with blood pouring from its mouth.

    Sounds an awful lot more gruesome than "Cleanup, Aisle 3!"

    Which begs the question: Why is it that movies and TV shows perpetuate this legend? And where did the "humans-explode-in-a-vacuum" legend begin?

    - Maha "under (no) pressure" Vailo
    At least the late 1940's
    Time wasted having fun is not time wasted - Lennon
    (John, not the other one.)

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    Quote Originally Posted by Maha Vailo View Post
    Which begs the question: Why is it that movies and TV shows perpetuate this legend?
    It makes for awesome visuals and when it comes to choosing between visuals and truth, visuals wins.
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    Quote Originally Posted by HenrikOlsen View Post
    It makes for awesome visuals and when it comes to choosing between visuals and truth, visuals wins.
    That's right, just like how cars always explode in a crash and people always go flying backward when hit by a bullet.
    As above, so below

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    Quote Originally Posted by Larry Jacks View Post
    No, a body wouldn't explode under those circumstances but the person would likely get a case of the bends. It would be equivalent to a diver shooting to the surface from roughly 200 feet down. Painful, dangerous, potentially deadly but not explosive.
    7 atm translates to 210 ft of salt water, and 231 ft of fresh water.

    Whether or not the person would get a case of the bends would depend entirely on how long they were under than pressure and what mixture of gases they were breathing.

    According to no-decompression dive tables, if they were there less than 4 minutes, then they would not get the bends. Any longer than that, they run an increasing risk of getting the bends upon resurfacing, if they were breathing standard air.

    If they were breathing heliox-10 (10% O2), however, they could stay down indefinately and resurface to 1 atm (surface pressure) with no risk of the bends.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Jens View Post
    That's right, just like how cars always explode in a crash and people always go flying backward when hit by a bullet.
    Cars almost never explode in a crash. They do occasionally catch fire.

    I've watched more video of people getting shot than I ever wanted (job requirement). People don't go flying backward if hit by normal ammo (handgun/rifle), but they do fall backwards. A shotgun will knock them back a couple of feet. If hit by a .50 cal, however, yes, they're sent flying.

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    Quote Originally Posted by mugaliens View Post
    Cars almost never explode in a crash. They do occasionally catch fire.

    I've watched more video of people getting shot than I ever wanted (job requirement). People don't go flying backward if hit by normal ammo (handgun/rifle), but they do fall backwards. A shotgun will knock them back a couple of feet. If hit by a .50 cal, however, yes, they're sent flying.
    I suppose I wasn't clear enough, but I meant to cite those two things as things that happen in movies all the time but not in real life. Just like people exploding in decompression.
    As above, so below

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    Quote Originally Posted by Maha Vailo View Post
    So what you'd probably see/hear is the victim screaming and then going into a seizure, and finally a contorted corpse with blood pouring from its mouth.
    The victim would experience pain from barotrauma and ebulism, and might or might not have a seizure. No reason for the corpse to be particularly "contorted". And "blood pouring from the mouth" is another one of those Hollywood things that rarely occurs in real life.

    Grant Hutchison

  27. 2009-Nov-11, 09:48 AM

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    Quote Originally Posted by mugaliens View Post
    If they were breathing heliox-10 (10% O2), however, they could stay down indefinately and resurface to 1 atm (surface pressure) with no risk of the bends.
    Dissolved helium will bubble in the tissues just as nitrogen does, so decompression tables for heliox dictate as slow a return to the surface as is required with nitrogen-oxygen.
    The main advantage to helium mixes is the relative lack of narcosis, not the absence of the bends.

    Grant Hutchison

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    Pressure differential can kill--as we all remember from the poor crab drawn into the underwater pipe:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?gl=GB&h...&v=Wv14vZx6jvU

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    Quote Originally Posted by Maha Vailo View Post
    Which begs the question: Why is it that movies and TV shows perpetuate this legend?
    Rule Of Cool.
    I'm a cynical optimist. I think the only way out is through, but once we get through it'll be better. Very different, but better. Howard Tayler

    It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change. Charles Darwin

    "It is the duty of the writers to seduce me into suspending my disbelief!" Paul Beardsley

    Power, Lord Acton says, corrupts. Not always. What power always does is reveal. Robert A. Caro

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    Quote Originally Posted by WHarris View Post
    In Licence to Kill, but Bond didn't do it. The main villain did, to kill an underling he thought had stolen money from him.
    Launder it!

    Grant, I notice you're consistently spelling the word "embulism". Is this a British spelling? I noticed a few others such as "oedema". We colonials spell them "embolism" and "edema", respectively.

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