Volume 36, Issue 2 (March 1991)
Toxicological Investigation of Liquid Petroleum Gas Explosion: Human Model for Propane/Ethyl Mercaptan Exposures
Four individuals died as the result of a propane explosion. As with many propane explosions, the question was raised as to the adequacy of the product's odorization after the autopsy studies had been conducted. In most cases, this question leads to litigation. Ethyl mercaptan is a widely used odorant for propane and was used in this instance. Three of the four victims had blood available at autopsy for study. Quantitative analyses of the victims' blood, obtained during autopsy, were performed using gas chromatography/mass spectrometry, without subjecting the samples to hydrolysis. These analyses determined the relative amounts of porpane and ethyl mercaptan in the blood to be 90, 63, and 175 mL/m3 headspace, and 0.36, 0.34, and 0.77 µg/L blood, respectively.
Since mercaptans have been reported in human blood as products of metabolism, modeling studies were conducted to establish the validity of the autopsy data and to develop an autopsy toxicology protocol for investigating explosion deaths. When subjects were not exposed to an atmosphere containing ethyl mercaptan, dimethylsulfide was the only mercaptan detectable in their blood without severe hydrolysis prior to analysis. Metabolic ethyl mercaptan is sufficiently bound to be undetectable by the methods used without hydrolysis. Human subjects were exposed to a flammable mixture of air and propane odorized with ethyl mercaptan. The analyses of the blood from these subjects produced results which were comparable with those for the explosion victims, establishing that the question of odorant adequacy can be addressed at the autopsy of propane explosion victims. It is extremely important that the pathologist and toxicologist investigating gas explosion deaths recognize the valuable evidence existing in the victim's blood.