Culprit in Portable Toilet Fire Death: CaC2? Prank – Chemical in Toilet Water Produces Acetylene
WASHINGTON, D.C. (February 18, 2019) – Police are apparently baffled about what caused a fire in a portable toilet which killed a man in Baltimore, but the answer could be what some might regard as a funny practical joke which in this case went tragically wrong, suggests public interest law professor John Banzhaf.
When dropped into water, a common and widely available chemical, calcium carbide [CaC2], reacts with the water to produce acetylene [C2H2], a highly explosive and flammable gas which was once widely used by miners as portable gas lamps ("carbide candles" or "smokers"), and is still used by cavers.
There are many references in books and on the Internet about dropping the chemical into a toilet as part of a practical joke which can be played on someone relieving themselves, especially if they are smokers.
For example, the Anarchist Cookbook suggests "put Calcium Carbine in a dissolving capsule and drop it in a toilet."
There are likewise numerous videos showing how to use calcium carbide to create the flammable gas acetylene, and then an explosion; instructions which often warn users to be very careful.
So, while there may be many possible explanation as to why a fire serious enough to kill a man could suddenly break out while he was using a portable toilet one which should at least be considered is that someone dropped calcium carbide into the water-based liquid in the portable potty; possible as sick joke or prank, says Banzhaf.
Banzhaf says that when he was a student at MIT, pranks [sometimes called "hacks"] involving explosives such as nitrogen triiodide [NI3] or dropping calcium carbide into a toilet, were frequently discussed, although the stories may have been exaggerated or even just invented.
JOHN F. BANZHAF III, B.S.E.E., J.D., Sc.D.
Professor of Public Interest Law
George Washington University Law School,
FAMRI Dr. William Cahan Distinguished Professor,
Fellow, World Technology Network,
Founder, Action on Smoking and Health (ASH),
2000 H Street, NW, Wash, DC 20052, USA
(202) 994-7229 // (703) 527-8418
http://banzhaf.net/ jbanzhaf3ATgmail.com @profbanzhaf