A Report and a Critique on Nitrogen Hypoxia Executions

Scientific American has this report by Dana Smith on execution via nitrogen hypoxia. Dudley Sharp has this critique of the article. As Mr. Sharp notes, all of the people interviewed by Ms. Smith for the article are opponents of the death penalty. As is standard practice in journalism now, opponents of the death penalty are not identified as such. The Death Penalty Information Center’s misleading self-identification is repeated uncritically in the article: “a national nonprofit that provides information and analysis on death penalty issues.” This Soros-funded organization filters and colors the information it provides to support only anti-death-penalty arguments, but you would never know that from the way it is routinely identified in the press.

Some of the comments are misleading and some border on silly. Among the latter, an anesthesiologist criticizes the coining of a new term, “nitrogen hypoxia,” as “a made-up two-word expression meant to sound like you’re on the bridge of the starship Enterprise.” For the record, I am a Star Trek fan of long standing, and the term never once made me think of the Enterprise. There is absolutely nothing wrong with coining a new term for a new procedure or invention. “Television” is a made-up word unknown in the nineteenth century. “Smart phone” is a more recent coined term for a more recent invention. Anything wrong with either of those?

The article uses the opponents’ favorite word, “suffocate,” but that is a term likely to mislead regular folks, regardless of whether it is technically accurate. When we hear that term, we think of someone with a pillow pressed over their face, unable to exhale and with the extreme distress caused by the resulting carbon dioxide build-up. Nitrogen hypoxia allows normal exhalation and thus avoids that distress, just like the low-pressure hypoxia that every Air Force flight training student (including me) has gone through. Been there, done that; it doesn’t hurt a bit.

The head of the DPIC chimes in with this beauty:

“And as far as anyone can tell, no one has considered the potentially lethal danger to execution personnel if [they] don’t carry it out properly.” * * * “Nitrogen is colorless, and it is odorless, and the same thing that led the Oklahoma legislature to think that this would be swift and painless—the fact that people were unaware that they were being poisoned at depth or at altitude—those very same factors could make it potentially lethal if gas leaks into areas where the execution team was,” Dunham says.

No one has considered it? Yes, those of us who understand basic physics (I have a bachelors degree in it, BTW) have considered it and consider this laughable. Nitrogen is not toxic. It is nearly 3/4 of the air we breathe all the time. It becomes lethal only if its concentration is so high that it displaces the oxygen needed to sustain life. If a room is reasonably large and well ventilated, the notion that a leak from a mask could release a large enough quantity to achieve such a displacement is preposterous. I worked in a laboratory where nitrogen in tanks was used all the time. Even though the lab management was very safety conscious and understood the science very well, no one thought these tanks presented a hypoxia hazard. (The hazard the tanks did present was if they fell over and broke off their valves, with resulting jet propulsion. Strict measures were followed to prevent that.) But just to be sure, it would be a simple matter to mount a few commercially available environmental oxygen monitors around the room. These modern replacements for the venerable miner’s canary can easily eliminate any doubt whatever.

If Ms. Smith had interviewed anyone knowledgeable on the other side of the debate, she would have known that and not reported nonsense.


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