Fatal Fall into a Volcanic Fumarole

University of California, San Diego, San Diego, California, United States
Wilderness and Environmental Medicine (Impact Factor: 1.2). 02/2009; 20(1):77-9. DOI: 10.1580/08-WEME-CR-199.1
Source: PubMed


Fatalities secondary to inhalation of volcanic gases in the United States have rarely been reported. We report the deaths of 3 ski patrol members at a popular California ski resort. After a snowstorm, ski patrol members were fencing off a well-known volcanic fumarole when the snow around the vent collapsed. Two members slid into the deep hole and rapidly lost consciousness. A third member carrying oxygen descended into the hole and also lost consciousness. A fourth member affixed an oxygen mask, but still lost consciousness upon descent. The 3 initial victims expired at the scene, while the fourth victim survived. Autopsy results for all 3 were consistent with a suffocation/asphyxiation death. In the case described, the involved fumarole is a well-known source of toxic gases. Atmospheric sampling data dating back decades demonstrate that carbon dioxide levels typically range from 97% to 99%, nitrogen gas from 1% to 3%, and hydrogen sulfide from .004% to .07%. Other gases in smaller concentrations include oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon monoxide. Given the rapidity with which our victims lost consciousness and the historical data available on the Mammoth Mountain Fumarole (MMF), it is plausible that our patients suffered from acute asphyxiation, although the contribution of the directly toxic effects of the gases involved cannot be ruled out. During winter months, snow can build up and disguise volcanic vents and potentially trap toxic fumes to form dangerous, gas-filled pits. Recognition of such potential hazards is essential when working in or venturing into volcanically active areas during the winter.

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    • "Because it is heavier than air, it tends to accumulate in hollows and depressions in volcanic areas (Allard et al. 1989;Stupfel and Le Guern 1989;Baxter et al. , 1990Baxter et al. , 1999Baxter 2010). The effects of increasing CO 2 concentrations in the air range from a shortage of breath, to dizziness, loss of consciousness and death (Ikeda et al. 1989;Hathaway et al. 2004;Hansell andOppenheimer 2004;Hansell et al. 2006;Cantrell and Young 2009) (Table 1). In some instances, excess CO 2 inhalation can lead to toxic sensorineural dysosmia resulting in olfactory distortions (parosmia) and hallucinations (phantosmia), and people have reported smelling " rotten gas " (H 2 S), and other smells, as well as narcoticeffects (Seevers 1944;Feldman et al. 1986). "

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    • "In addition, close attention should be paid to any changes in the activity of geothermal features, including changes in flow rate, water level, or outgassing, that could indicate an imminent " eruption " or discharge. Care should also be taken to avoid asphyxiation when working near hot springs, particularly in hot springs or fumaroles in depressions and on calm days when dense gasses (e.g., CO 2 ) can accumulate (Cantrell and Young, 2009; Whittlesey, 1995). "
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    • "Low to moderate CO2 concentrations (i.e., > 2% by volume) in breathing air indeed cause respiration problems, acidosis in blood and feeling of heaviness in the chest, sweating, tachycardia, mental depression and tremors. As the CO2 concentration climbs above 10%, coupled with the decrease in O2, unconsciousness and death can quickly be induced (e.g., Beaubien et alii 2003, Cantrell and Young 2009, Heggie 2009). In order to assess the mechanisms that originate the gas exhalations and to minimize the CO2 hazard for human beings, cattle and pets, from 2005 in the n-e sector of Mt. "

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