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A look at the chemistry, dangers of dry ice

Wednesday - 10/16/2013, 11:50pm  ET

The Associated Press

A baggage handler arrested after dry ice bombs exploded at the Los Angeles International Airport had planted the devices as a prank, authorities said Wednesday.

No one was hurt when the two plastic bottles packed with dry ice exploded in employee-only areas of the airport Sunday night, though some flights were delayed. An unexploded device was found Monday night.

Police said the bombs were made by putting dry ice in 20-ounce plastic bottles, and the blasts could have injured someone.

Here are some facts about dry ice and handling it:

WHAT IS DRY ICE?

Dry ice is solidified carbon dioxide that is so cold (minus 109.3 degrees Fahrenheit) that touching it without gloves can cause severe frostbite. It changes from solid to gas form at room temperature through a process called sublimation that looks like a fog or smoke coming off it.

WHAT IS IT USED FOR?

It generally is used to keep food, medicine or biological materials such as breast milk frozen or chilled. Dry ice is colder than ice made from water and leaves no liquid behind as it changes into a gas.

ARE AIRPLANE PASSENGERS ALLOWED TO TRAVEL WITH DRY ICE?

Passengers can pack perishables in up to 5 pounds of dry ice in their carry-on or checked baggage as long as it's properly packaged -- meaning the container is vented, according to the Transportation Security Administration. Even so, the agency reserves the right to prohibit dry ice on a plane if officials believe it poses a security concern.

IS DRY ICE DANGEROUS?

When transporting dry ice, packages must allow for the release of carbon dioxide gas. If the container has no venting, the buildup of carbon dioxide as it changes into a gas can lead to an explosion. Adding water accelerates the process. That's how people make "dry-ice bombs," which are sometimes used as classroom chemistry demonstrations. The size of the explosion varies based on the size and type of container and the amount of dry ice used. The devices can cause injuries to people nearby if the built-up pressure is high enough and includes flying bottle shards.

HOW SHOULD DRY ICE BE HANDLED?

If you travel with dry ice, storing it in a foam cooler will allow the vapor to escape safely. It's also advised that dry ice containers be opened only in larger rooms or ones that are well-vented. The buildup of carbon dioxide in an enclosed space eats away at available oxygen and could lead to carbon dioxide poisoning. In a properly ventilated aircraft, small amounts of dry ice aren't a concern. But excessive amounts can incapacitate an aircrew, according to a Federal Aviation Administration advisory.


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