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Dying from rapid depressurization- possible?

  1. Jun 18, 2009 #1
    In the Bond film, License to Kill, the villain Sanchez shoves one of his henchmen into a pressurization chamber, sets it to max, and then uses an axe to cut open the tube, causing rapid depressurization and the guys body to literally blow up like a balloon and explode.

    I was wondering if something like that is possible in real life? Could a person literally blow up like a giant balloon?
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  3. Jun 18, 2009 #2

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    It's a movie, and a James Bond movie at that. Why did you even ask?
  4. Jun 18, 2009 #3


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    I didn't see the movie, but I'm familiar with diving. After being at depth for a time, rapid depressurization can cause http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/769717-overview", also known as 'the bends.' Never heard of bodies blowing up, though :eek:.
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 24, 2017
  5. Jun 18, 2009 #4
    Yes you can die from rapid-decompression. No, you won't blow up like that.
  6. Jun 19, 2009 #5
    I believe that mythbusters did an episode on dying from a puncture in a plane, and it was nothing like the movies.
  7. Jun 19, 2009 #6
    Oh, so you haven't seen Total Recall?

  8. Jun 19, 2009 #7
    I thought that was about whether or not a bullet would cause rapid depressurisation and they would then use some explosive to see 'what it would take'?

    Anyhow, if you increase the pressure in the chamber significantly enough, and then quickly dropped it, you would risk 'popping' your lungs (or at the very least your ears).

    Divers have to be careful because although, yes rising too quickly causes nitrogen bubbles in the blood, and hence the bends. The drop in atmospheric pressure around them as they ascend also causes the air within their lungs to expand and can if severe enough, cause them to 'pop'.

    As a diver descends they ingest more air than they would at the surface to compensate for the additional pressure from the water around them, this is controlled by the regulator valve (as the pressure on the valve increases with depth, the more air it allows into the lungs to maintain 'normal' expansion for breathing). As such, ascent (whilst not exhaling) would cause the surrounding pressure to drop and the air to expand your lungs past capacity. Speed of ascent generally isn't an issue (they will 'pop' at any speed of ascent if you fail to breath out), however the slower the better as you gain the ability to react and exhale in time to prevent damage. This would be the same situation as in the 'bond scenario' above, except in the film they increase air pressure. But no, you wouldn't just explode. But yes, you would die (loosing your lungs can be detrimental to your health you know).

    On an aircraft, rapid depressurisation causes a mist to form, this mist is the water vapour being 'left behind'. The main problem here is suffocation and extreme cold (-56 Celsius at cruise altitude). Hence the Oxygen masks on aircraft. Although pressure is lost, breathing would become difficult even with mask (your body is designed for 1atm at sea level). However the mask allows you to survive until the aircraft can descend to a more suitable height (<10,000ft). Not much you can do about the cold except wrap up to keep warm, but even so a controlled descent can take over 2 minutes which is a long time at circa -56 Celsius.
    Last edited: Jun 19, 2009
  9. Jun 19, 2009 #8
    Yes. That's exactly how wind turbines kill bats.

    http://scienceblogs.com/notrocketscience/2008/08/holy_haemorrhage_batman_wind_turbines_burst_bat_lungs.php [Broken]
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  10. Jun 19, 2009 #9
    It probably doesn't feel that cold, with the low air density.
  11. Jun 19, 2009 #10
    Yeah but at 500mph theres gonna be slight breeze me thinks. Did you see the report from years ago when a cockpit window shattered and the pilot got sucked out, feet got caught on the control column and he was 'dragged' along the fuselage at 300mph. Ripped most of his skin off. Nasty stuff but he survived.

    As you descend the density will increase (as will temperature to some degree) but even at 10,000 it's still pretty nippy and again, at 500mph you're gonna feel something. Possibly not the full airspeed but certainly the temperature.
  12. Jun 21, 2009 #11


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  13. Jun 21, 2009 #12
    Does a vacuum comes into this? Surely worst thing in bond would be 1 atm. A vacuum is a significant leap wrt depressuriasation. Looking purely at the bond scenario (an aircraft is under near vacuum conditions), the bloke would be at one pressure and then dropped quickly to atmospheric pressure. Now correct me on this one if I'm wrong, but given the pressure on him never gets to less than 1 atm then he is not going to experience the problems of entering a vacuum. Going from a space craft to vacuum is going from a pressure where you are comfy to one where problems are caused. Goining from high pressure to normal is going from a pressure where problems (within) the body are caused to a pressure your body can cope with without effect. Now yes, the rapid depressureisation will have a detrimental effect (as in my previous posts) but if your lungs suffer no serious damage you would likely survive. I don't think bringing a vacuum into this is a good idea as it is irrelevant in terms of the OP. As it is the opposite effect you would get to going from high to normal pressure as opposed to normal to vacuum. He is never going to experience the effects described in the article as the pressure nevers drops low enough to cause them, neither does the oxygen level. It's like saying divers who ascend too quickly experience the effects of entering a vacuum (obviously the bends, but they get nothing else).
    Last edited: Jun 21, 2009
  14. Jun 21, 2009 #13


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    Wrong movie. Read the OP again. Pressure chamber meets axe.
  15. Jun 21, 2009 #14
    Yes, I've seen it, and? Yes it depressurises quickly, and yes there may be signs of depressurisation but nothing to the 'extreme' you would see in a vacuum. He goes from high to normal pressure yes?
  16. Jun 21, 2009 #15


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    Sorry, the Total Recall post got me sidetracked. However, the NASA report states that, even in a vacuum, you wouldn't blow up. So, it's doubtful that going from high pressure to normal would cause a person to blow up either.
  17. Jun 21, 2009 #16


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    Perhaps I misunderstood. I got the impression you were saying that "a drop from 1 atmo to almost 0 atmo is not that big a drop". I was pointing out that "it was a pressure tank so, being a Bond film, it could have been pressurized to 10 atmos. 10 down to 1 is bigger than 1 down to 0".

    But now I'm thinking you figure vacuum is worse. I'm not sure that's true. It's only a 1 atmo drop.

    I think we need to make a distinction between slow drop and rapid drop. A slow drop from 1atmo to zero will still kill you, yes, but not right away, and not by extreme trauma. A fast drop from many atmos down to 1 atmo will likely kill you traumatically.
  18. Jun 22, 2009 #17
    I certainly agree there.

    As per my previous posts, I have pointed out that a quick drop will be worse than a slow one (regardless of drop size). However, what I meant by 1 to 0 being 'more extreme' was that down to 1atm it is a breathable atmosphere (although difficult at 10atm). And even just below it is breathable. As before, 10 to 1, will cause serious trauma and probably death, but if you stopped at 1 and managed to survive then you may (its a longshot), but you may be ok. Whereas going from 1 to 0, slow or fast (generally when slow it is from sustained exposure) you will die (again only for longer than 2+mins for slow, and from prolonged exposure for both).

    Personnally I wouldn't want to take my chances with either, as they are both equally likely to kill you. I was just trying to point out there is a difference between having a vacuum involved as it brings further complications (lack of oxygen, not that you'd worry about that in a quick pressure drop).
  19. Jun 22, 2009 #18


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    No. The quick drop and/or the big drop (from 10 to 1) is much much more likely to kill you than any kind of drop from 1 to 0. A drop to near vacuum gives you several minutes to act and, even at that, if you're rescued/spared, you can be revived pretty well. OTOH, quick drop / long drop = ruptured parts = no recovery.
  20. Jun 22, 2009 #19
    If you drop slowly (I take it thats what you meant by long) from 10 to 1 there may not be any effects at all (divers do it all the time). So the size of the drop is irrelevant so long as you breathe out (to avoid ruptured lungs). It is the speed of the drop which will cause the damage and cause the bends.

    What I mean't was, if you went from 1 to 0, regardless of speed and it was held there (for example a space craft rupturing severely in space, the only natural way to go to vacuum) you would die. Whereas to go from 10 to 1 (as in a diver) there is a chance of survival. Yes, going quickly would probably kill you, but theres always a chance. Whereas 1 to 0 in space gives no chance, unless you can be rescued (and given the lack of another vehicle close by it's unlikely). Yes in a pressure chamber, providing you are brought out quick enough a vacuum isn't too much of a problem. I was trying to make a point in the last post by stressing 'prolonged' exposure to the vacuum. And was looking at the more 'uncontrolled' ways of rapid-depressurisation.
    Last edited: Jun 22, 2009
  21. Aug 6, 2009 #20
    The depressurization in an airplane is very moderate, perhaps from 10k feet (they do not maintain ground level pressure) to 40k feet. You need breathing oxygen and may have ear problems. Sailors training for submarine service are taught that when escaping from a boat at great depth, they must pressurize at outside pressure before opening the escape hatch, then exhale all the way up, (counter intuitive, to say the least) or risk having their lungs explode. So if someone were pressurized to a pressure equal to several hundred feet of water and suddenly reduced to one atmosphere, he would certainly die, although his body would not explode, except in the movies. Maybe his chest. He wouldn't have a good day.
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