We expect certain things to explode or combust. We gather to watch exploding fireworks, watch in awe as old sports stadiums are imploded, and we depend on the military to deploy bombs to keep us safe. Our cars are powered by internal-combustion engines (OK, before you electric-car lovers beg to differ, you plug your cars into an electric grid still powered largely by another combustible energy source, coal). And we realize that rarely, explosive elements we use every day can cause unexpected destruction, as when natural gas explosions level homes.
This is a story about stuff you didn’t realize is explosive. Sure, you’ve probably seen the YouTube video of people dropping a popular candy in a soft drink and creating a rocket-like explosion. So we’ll skip that angle and present another five items you didn’t realize were explosive or combustible.
The next time your refrigerator starts making a funny noise, it might be the icemaker resetting — or it could be something more serious. Fewer than a dozen exploding refrigerators have been reported in the past few years outside the United States. Most recently, the explosions of a few refrigerators in Great Britain have been attributed to leaks of an environmentally friendly coolant known as isobutene. Given the hundreds of millions of refrigerators worldwide that currently use that coolant, the risk of an explosion is exceedingly small, but here’s something to ponder — the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has approved the use of isobutene in household refrigerators, effective Feb. 21, 2012. Manufacturers must label new refrigerators with a warning: “DANGER – Risk of Fire or Explosion.”
The biological process that causes compost to decompose produces a tremendous amount of heat. That’s why, if you’ve visited a recycling center, you may have seen big tractors turning the mulch piles to aerate them and reduce the internal temperatures. Still, compost fires are common at recycling and landscaping centers, and they can also turn up in the most unexpected places. In November 2010, authorities discovered a huge, illegal marijuana-growing operation in a Los Angeles-area home after a compost pile ignited in the living room.
There’s no need to worry about your home compost bin bursting into flames, as larger piles are needed to produce the right conditions for fire, but it couldn’t hurt to turn the pile now and then — which you probably do anyway to help make better mulch.
3. Corn, Wheat and Flour Dust
The historical record is full of massive explosions rocking grain silos, corn-processing plants and feed mills. Those explosions are much more common than you would think — an Oklahoma State University study found an average of about 11 such explosions occur each year in the U.S., resulting in a couple of deaths and millions in damages. Take an enclosed area full of very tiny, dry dust particles of wheat, flour, barley, etc., agitate the dust into a cloud, add oxygen and a spark from an electrical short or static electricity and the result can be devastating. Other types of dust, from coal, and industrial products, such as resins and rubbers, are also highly explosive under the right — or wrong — conditions. The most notable dust-related explosion in recent years occurred in 2003 at a pharmaceutical plant in Kinston, North Carolina, when a massive explosion killed six and hurled debris two miles away.
In arguably the most famous explosion of a seemingly harmless substance, a tank holding 2.3 million gallons of molasses exploded in Boston in 1919. The explosion sent a 10- to 15-foot-high wave of molasses hurtling at 35 mph through the North End section of the city, burying buildings, upending vehicles and causing 21 deaths and scores of injuries. Lawyers for the U.S. Industrial Alcohol Co. — which had planned to use the molasses to make rum — and families of the dead and injured spent years in court trying to assign blame for the disaster. One theory held that the fermentation of molasses had built up pressure and caused the tank to explode. A court eventually found that proper safety procedures had not been followed. On a strange note, almost 100 years later, some neighborhood residents claim they can smell molasses during the summer.
In the past couple of hundred years, there have been several hundred mysterious deaths that some have attributed to spontaneous human combustion, in which the body supposedly bursts into flames. These incidents are so rare, and so mysterious in nature, that the most famous case of spontaneous human combustion in modern times is the fictional case of the ill-fated drummer in the 1984 comedy Spinal Tap. There are theories about how this could occur, but there is no accepted scientific explanation of what could cause such cases. And no one has ever observed someone burst into flames and verified it didn’t result from an external ignition source. Various reports reveal similarities in the victims and their circumstances. Many were obese, sedentary and elderly, often living alone. Many were alcoholics, and also smoked, leading to speculation that they passed out and a cigarette ignited the deadly fire. Yet some suspected SHC victims did not fit that profile. Even more curious, in many cases, the remains were found totally consumed, in some cases reduced to ashes, but surrounding furniture and bedding was relatively untouched. Until such a case comes along that can be verified, SHC is best classified as an unexplained phenomenon, but some authorities are willing to say it is a very real occurrence — in 2010, a coroner in Ireland attributed the death of a 76-year-old man to SHC.
One More: Frogs
In 2005 in a pond in Hamburg, Germany, thousands of frogs suddenly began exploding, earning the pond the nickname “The Pond of Death.” According to one theory, enterprising crows swooped down and pecked out the frogs’ livers — wouldn’t that make a great YouTube video? — leading to obvious health problems for the frogs, which swelled to cartoonish proportions before exploding.
And Another: Pistachio Nuts
A German insurance company provides this helpful advice for maritime captains transporting pistachio nuts: “Fat decomposition in pistachio nuts leads to the risk of self-heating and, ultimately, to a cargo fire.” While sea captains should heed the risk, you have nothing to fear from that bowl of pistachios you set out on the coffee table during the big game.