Why Liquid Nitrogen Is Dangerous

When an 18-year-old British reveler was rushed to the hospital after ingesting a cocktail prepared with liquid nitrogen, questions arose about the safety of using the chemical in the kitchen

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Charles D Winters / Getty Images

Liquid nitrogen is poured from a container.

Recently, an 18-year-old British teen named Gaby Scanlon made news when she underwent an emergency gastrectomy — the surgical removal of part of the stomach — after drinking a Jagermeister cocktail made with liquid nitrogen at a bar in northern England.

The incident immediately brought comment from chefs and bartenders, particularly molecular gastronomists who make a living of experimenting with gases and chemicals to enhance food and drink preparation and the eating experience in general. But while liquid nitrogen is commonly used by trained chefs, it can be extremely dangerous or deadly if not handled properly. Let’s review the safe and dangerous uses of the chemical.

(MORE: British Woman Loses Stomach After Drinking Liquid Nitrogen Cocktail)

First, what is liquid nitrogen? Known scientifically as LN2, it is an odorless, colorless, non-flammable cryogen — a really cold chemical — with a boiling point of -196°C.

It’s used routinely in medicine, to freeze off warts, including genital and HIV-related warts. Because liquid nitrogen instantly freezes anything on contact, dermatologists can use it to simply dry out unwanted tissue and let it fall off. Surgeons also use cryotherapies to eliminate cancerous cells.

In the kitchen, liquid nitrogen is used to make ice cream, flash-freeze herbs or freeze alcohol. Bartenders will swirl it around glasses to chill them, so that the supercooled glass will emanate a dramatic-looking vapor. (Liquid nitrogen creates a fog when exposed to air.)

The main point is that liquid nitrogen must be fully evaporated from the meal or drink before serving, said Peter Barham of the University of Bristol’s School of Physics. It can safely be used in food or drink preparation, but it should not be ingested. The BBC reported:

Professor Barham adds that just as no-one would drink boiling water or oil, or pour it over themselves, no-one should ingest liquid nitrogen. …

Science writer and fellow at the Royal Society of Chemistry John Emsley says if more than a “trivial” amount of liquid nitrogen is swallowed, the result can be horrendous. “If you drank more than a few drops of liquid nitrogen, certainly a teaspoon, it would freeze, and become solid and brittle like glass. Imagine if that happened in the alimentary canal or the stomach.

“The liquid also quickly picks up heat, boils and becomes a gas, which could cause damage such as perforations or cause a stomach to burst,” he says.

(MORE: Give Modernist Cuisine a Break)

There’s a pretty penny to be made in molecular gastronomy, according to a 2011 American Culinary Federation salary study; research chefs earn some of the highest incomes in the industry. In fact, the Culinary Institute of America just instituted a major in culinary science. As part of the degree, students learn how to use liquid nitrogen as a coolant to make a smoother batch of ice cream, or dip strawberries in liquid nitrogen and then smash them to produce a strawberry dust that could be sprinkled over a dish, the Associated Press reported.

When used properly, “it’s mesmerizing,” Dave Arnold, head of culinary technology at the French Culinary Institute and partner in charge of cocktails at Momofuku’s Booker and Dax bar in New York City, told ABC News. “It’s like so many things in life. If it is used improperly, there are hazards. … A deep-fryer also has dangers when people are using it without training.”

He added that in bartending, if liquid nitrogen does get into the cocktail itself, you can see it because it floats. “You can see it rolling around the top of the drink,” he said.

So, drink responsibly, Healthland readers.

MORE: Punched Up: Mixing Victoria-Era Cocktails with Molecular Gastronomy

53 comments
adamrussell
adamrussell

Seriously, I used to work with LN and its not dangerous but you have to respect it.  Its funny to drop on the floor and watch it skitter away.

Chimodo Kyumi Amaterious DeMeo
Chimodo Kyumi Amaterious DeMeo

Honestly am I the only one who is not a fan of everyone attacking the girl and calling her stupid.

She tried a new drink, and it was the BARTENDER who messed something up... It's not like her dumb friends were mixing up random alcohol into liquid nitrogen. Maybe she said "I'd like to try something new. Surprise me" and the bartender made her a drink and obviously didn't do it the right way. 

Just shows that there should be certain things that bartenders need special training in. And need to use more caution if such drinks are available for them to make.

ERenger
ERenger

I totally agree. A bar or restaurant should not serve you something dangerous. 

DeltaFunk0
DeltaFunk0 like.author.displayName 1 Like

Because it's really f****** cold. That's why. Done and done.

Anthony Max
Anthony Max

It's hard to sympathize with someone who thinks drinking liquid nitrogen is safe. Our students obviously need more time in the chemistry lab.

HaileeWetherbee
HaileeWetherbee

It is completely safe to ingest things made with liquid nitrogen as it boils off as soon as its exposed to air. As a third year chemistry major at RIT I think I would know better than most. It was not the nitrogen that burned her it was the freezing point of the alcohol being very low and burning her stomach. The nitrogen was gone befor the drink was handed to her

Robert Harvey-Kinsey
Robert Harvey-Kinsey

You know alcohol is far more dangerous than liquid nitrogen and it was likely the real cause of this accident. Why do Americans need boggy men so badly?

EaglesQuestions
EaglesQuestions

1) She didn't mix her own drink.

2) Her stomach didn't explode from the spirits. 

3) This was a drunk Brit.

conet
conet

Do a shot of whiskey. The next day, a shot of LN2. Tell us which felt worse.

LoudRambler
LoudRambler

 Any wound, no matter how minor, can be lethal if it gets untreated. Due to intoxication. I heard stories about people getting limbs amputated if they passed out in the way that blocked the flow of blood to the limb or choked on their own vomit.

 Besides, I doubt that there was all that much liquid nitrogen in the shot. It boils out pretty fast.

conet
conet

That's true, but that's more an issue of being injured due to loss of motor control, or as direct result of well-known effects of alcohol. Rapid and severe stomach tissue damage just doesn't happen from alcohol, and the effects of alcohol on one's body are significantly less severe than from LN2 if compared apples to apples. Drink large amounts of alcohol, pass out, tiny chance of aspirating vomit, vanishingly small chance of losing a limb. Drink a glass of LN2, you'll be dead in minutes.

Unless the drink was spiked with a third dangerous ingredient, such as powdered glass, there's no mechanism for alcohol to cause that amount of tissue damage that quickly.

rapier1
rapier1

If alcohol is so much more dangerous what do you think would happen to an average person who did a shot of liquid nitrogen versus a shot of bourbon? Remember, one of these two liquids is at -196C and can cause serious skin and tissue damage withing seconds of exposure.

Bushney
Bushney

Putting something like this in a drink should be illegal.

Nengal
Nengal

I don't understand why it matters if it's cold. She could have just puked it back up and lived. It's not like it does anything to your body until it dissolves into your blood stream. That's when things get complicated. Stupid girl must have just let it sit in her stomach and go through her body.

rapier1
rapier1

It matters because something that cold (-190F) will freeze things - including living tissue like the lining of your stomach almost instantly. That's why they can use it in cryosurgery. Also, the liquid nitrogen (even after it turns into a gas) could not get into her blood stream and cause any problems. You are confusing this with the condition known as 'the bends'. While the same gas is involved it's an entirely different process and problem.

Holly McCann
Holly McCann

 I would ask you the same question John.....

Samilcar
Samilcar

So, I can still drink Drano and bleach?

ERenger
ERenger

Only one at a time. Never mix them. 

Senor_Hosenscheisser
Senor_Hosenscheisser

The fact that the article has to be titled "Why Liquid Nitrogen is Dangerous" says everything about the state of education  in this country.

LoudRambler
LoudRambler

 Yes, absolutely.

 People in "this country" may never see liquid nitrogen in their lives for real, but they've seen a lot of movies where it is used for freezing people instantly, from "Terminator 2" to some pulp stuff.

 And they forget the basics of physics, so they can't do a sanity check on what they see onscreen.

Leecherius
Leecherius

Yet it was a Brit who ingested it...

Crypteia
Crypteia

Our culture has dumbed them down quite a bit.  They're youth are obsessed with America.

pc1397
pc1397

Dumbed you down a bit too. It's "their", not "they're".

adamrussell
adamrussell

Yea right.  Thats why she did it.  Because she thought thats what Americans do.

popeye1128
popeye1128

Why does this seem like common sense to me? I remember watching the Science Guy shattering rubber balls after a few seconds in liquid nitrogen.

I would never ingest something that contained it no matter how long it had been in the drink. Why not just swallow a piece of dry ice and get it over with?

John Krisfalusci
John Krisfalusci

I don't understand, how come some people like I saw on Bill Nye, take a marshmallow, then throw it in a pot of liquid nitrogen, then pop it in their mouths  and when they exhale; smoke comes out their nostrils with no ill effects?

My first question is, when the marshmallow is in the mouth, the initial contact against the flesh of the mouth, shouldn't he have been frostbitten? Keep in mind, the marshmallow was just fully immersed into the pot of liquid nitrogen before he put it in his mouth...

2nd, When he is exhaling with the smoke coming out of his nostrils and mouth, shouldn't the cold vapors from emitting from the marshmallow cause frost bite?

How could a girl get a perforated stomach which led to a partial removal and almost dying from ingesting the substance, when Bill Nye and others can do it with food products without any consequences? Remember , please answer all questions fully and specifically, I just cant stand dumb people with dumb answers.

I NEED to know. Thank you in advance!

Talbot Grace
Talbot Grace

There is a logical explanation.  Bill Nye is a replicant.

rapier1
rapier1

 When you put the bit of super cooled food into your mouth you maintain minimal contact with the tissue. Basically you use you teeth and try to keep your tongue and cheeks away from the food. Also, you are breathing out (which makes the fog) and this rapidly warms the food (there is also some insulation due to the pressure of the expanding gasses creating a small air gap. It's a minor thing in comparison to the other techniques though). This woman was so horrifically hurt because she *swallowed* liquid nitrogen and supercooled alcohol. This created a significant amount of tissue contact which caused cell death due to freezing.

I used to run a liquid nitrogen demonstration at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia and we used to do something similar with crackers. It's still possible to give yourself little frozen spots - but it's nothing serious. Looking back on this it was probably a dumb demonstration.

Holly McCann
Holly McCann

Looks like someone didn't pay attention in high school science .....

A marshmallow is 95% air. Just like a Twinkie is nature's perfect shock absorber, a marshmallow is nature's perfect insulator. When you submurge it in Liquid Nitrogen and them pop it in your mouth, there's not enough mass in the marshmallow to cause frost bite. The marshmallow itself warms up almost instantly the second you put it in your mouth, however, the air in it is still -350º.... until you chew it. The instant you release the super cooled air in your mouth, it causes the water vapor in your mouth and lungs to instantly condense when you breath out. Hence the smoke.

What happened to her is she drank a liquid that was still at -350º and it caused the liquid in her stomach to instantly freeze. The resulting ice crystals then punctured her stomach. She probably had esophagus damage too.

Michelle Farley
Michelle Farley

I am a research engineer who works with LN2 every day.  LN2 evaporates extremely fast - if I spill a little  it will be gone before it hits the floor.  All the LN2 on the marshmallow had evaporated by the time it was eaten. The smoke you are seeing is water vapor not nitrogen -- remember the marshmallow was still  damn cold.  There must have been a lot of it in the girl's drink for her to get hurt since it didn't have time to evaporate.  LN2 will shatter your eye ball if you get one drop in your eye -- it should be nowhere near your food.      

LoudRambler
LoudRambler

 It will not shatter your eye ball. One drop does not nearly have the energy to shatter anything, let alone the fact that it normally ricochets off hot things, as in a droplet of water on the hot frying pan.

 But it can give you some nasty surface burn, hence the eyeglasses. 

EaglesQuestions
EaglesQuestions

And thank you for tonight's nightmare, probably featuring a light rain-shower and a shattered eyeball. 

:( 

*shiver*

Samilcar
Samilcar

 Bill Nye didn't put liquid nitrogen inside of his body. He put a very cold marshmallow inside of his body.

John Krisfalusci
John Krisfalusci

Jeezus christ.. are you retarded? God, I just cant stand morans.. I mean really.. how dumb can you be? I never said he ingested liquid nitrogen he ate a marshmallow that was immersed in liquid nitrogen! God... how do idiots like you even make it this far in life? It's just mind boggling really...

kmetchem
kmetchem

As a chemist, I feel I'm equipped to answer your question fully.  Liquid nitrogen is boiling when it comes into anything warmer than -196C, so when you see the vapor coming off of it, that is the N2 that has become gasous.  Although the marshmallow had come into contact with N2, it wasn't completely frozen.  The vapor that was coming off was because the N2 that had adsorbed (different from absorption) was quickly turning into gasous N2 as ones body is warmer than -196C.  He did not receive frostbite because the amount of time that the actually cooled N2 marshmallow touched his tongue/teeth/mouth was on the millisecond scale, if not smaller.

This article never fully explains how much the girl ingested.  However, if she ingested a teaspoon on liquid nitrogen, the nitrogen would become gaseous as soon as it hit anything warmer than -196C, so in the stomach at 37C it rapidly expands-- which could cause the stomach to burst if too much gas was produced.  Think of it this way... if you have a balloon full of air it is big and takes up a lot of space.  If you were to condense that same amount of air into a liquid it would be a really small amount.  Remember what you learned in schoool, that solids are more dense than liquids*, and liquids are more dense than gas... so if you have liquid nitrogen it takes up a small amount of space, for the same volume of gaseous nitrogen would take up.  In an enclosed space like a ballon (or stomach) it could cause it to break (burst).

Please note that the astrisk is there to denote that this isn't always the case (such as in water), but most of the time this is true.

John Krisfalusci
John Krisfalusci

Thank you for the detailed response, but one question that stands out, how could the stomach burst when liquid nitrogen condenses the air?

I mean the way you said it, you are saying that if for example, a balloon is placed in liquid nitrogen, then the air in it should condense and take up LESS space no?

So how come her stomach almost exploded? Was it the N2 gas like you explained that caused the vast expansion in a short period of time? The stomach should have shrunk if anything no? Or maybe when the liquid was ingested, any part of it that slid down the esophagus and into the stomach lining could have been 'perforated'?

Hope that isnt TOO confusing. Thanks!

kmetchem
kmetchem

Liquid nitrogen doesn't condense in air, it expands because it is going from a liquid, more condensed state, to a gaseous, more expansive state.

To answer the question in the 2nd paragraph: Yes, if the balloon (filled with air) is placed in a vat of liquid nitrogen, the air inside the balloon will condense (because cold air takes up less space than warm air and air exposed at -196C will take up less space than air that is in a balloon at room temperature, 20C).  What I was saying though is, if the balloon is filled with liquid nitrogen (not air) it will immediately turn into gas--expanding the balloon, because the temperature surrounding the liquid nitrogen is warmer than -196C.

The article doesn't explain how liquid nitrogen got into her stomach-- in that unless it was a large quantity it should have all vaporized before getting  all the way down her tract into her stomach.  However, assuming she had liquid form nitrogen in her stomach, it will still turn into a gas and start to expand her stomach because her stomach is warmer than -196C. 

conet
conet

There's very little to no air in the stomach. You belch most that gets in there. The stomach bursts because LN2 turns to gas.

kds9
kds9

John,

Seriously you should not be calling people morAns when you ask a question like "how could the stomach burst when liquid nitrogen condenses the air?"

The liquid nitrogen is a LIQUID substance that would be turning into a gas in the stomach causing lots of gas (and expansion) from a small amount of N2!!!!!!!!!

Richard
Richard

the marshmallow was simply put into it, it did not have liquid nitrogen on it when it went into the mouth, it would be like putting an ice cube in your mouth.

the girl drank the actual liquid nitrogen

Nathan Weyer
Nathan Weyer

 The short answer is that the marshmallow does not retain or transfer cold very well, while what probably happened here is there was a significant pocket of intact liquid nitrogen in the drink

Zeu
Zeu

Liquid Nitrogen is non-toxic so its safe to use to make food/beverage. The marshmallow was coated with very thin of LN and pop into mouth. It evaporate very quick because mouth is warm so no time to freeze tongue. The Jager can't become ice while dipping in LN so she drank it as cold as LN then freeze her stomach.

Senor_Hosenscheisser
Senor_Hosenscheisser

Because she drank it - the actual substance was still in her drink. By the time Bill Nye put that marshmallow in his mouth, the liquid nitrogen on the surface of the marshmallow had immediately evaporated. All that was left was a very cold marshmallow. Big difference.