1 figure omitted
On December 4, 2003, a hazardous materials (HazMat) release occurred
at a jewelry store in Beloit, Wisconsin, when the store owner tightened a
screw on the door of an old safe outfitted with a chemical theft-deterrent
device. The device included a metal housing containing a glass vial of liquid,
which cracked as the screw tightened, releasing approximately 4 ounces of
tear gas. The store owner sustained eye and skin irritation and was treated
at a hospital and released. Twelve persons in the building and persons in
adjacent businesses were evacuated for 3 hours while a certified Level A HazMat
team,* city firefighters, and emergency medical technicians responded to the
release. This report summarizes the response to this event and underscores
the need for persons who use old safes and vaults to know how to identify
these devices and avoid tampering with them.
Beginning in the 1920s, certain safes and vaults included (or were fitted
with) theft-deterrent devices containing chemical vials. Chloropicrin†
was used commonly in these devices. Other tear gas agents reportedly were
used in similar theft-deterrent devices. The metal casing of these devices
usually is approximately 3 inches wide and 6-8 inches tall; the device is
fastened to the back of a safe door with screws. A major manufacturer of these
devices was located in Wisconsin during the 1920s–1950s, and other companies
sold similar devices. One such device was found in an Iowa bank in 1999 after
a vial shattered, releasing chloropicrin and causing a pregnant bank employee
to suffer eye, skin, and throat irritation (2). The number of these devices
sold or still in circulation is unknown.
Chloropicrin was used as a chemical weapon during World War I (2). Documented
symptoms of chloropicrin exposure include (1) irritation of the eyes, skin,
and respiratory system; (2) lacrimation (i.e., tearing); (3) cough; (4) pulmonary
edema; and (5) nausea and vomiting (1).
The 2003 chloropicrin release was reported to the Hazardous Substances
Emergency Events Surveillance (HSEES) system operated by the Wisconsin Department
of Health and Family Services. Created and funded by the Agency for Toxic
Substances and Disease Registry (3), HSEES is a multistate‡ health
department surveillance system that tracks morbidity and mortality resulting
from events§ involving the release or potential release of a hazardous
substance.∥ However, because reporting HazMat events to HSEES is not mandatory,
participating state health departments might not be informed about every event.
In addition, how many chemical releases from theft-deterrent devices occur
in nonparticipating states is unknown.
Persons who use or are around older safes and vaults (e.g., bankers,
jewelers, locksmiths, and vault technicians) should know how to identify these
devices and should avoid tampering with them. If a device is identified, only
trained persons (e.g., experienced locksmiths or HazMat personnel) should
attempt to remove or neutralize these devices. In addition, appropriate personal
protective equipment should be used when attempting to dismantle these devices
(4). If the contents of a device are released, the area should be evacuated
immediately. Persons who have adverse health effects (e.g., eye, skin, or
respiratory irritation) should seek medical attention immediately.
J Drew, W Otto, H Nehls-Lowe, MPH, Wisconsin Dept of Health and Family Svcs. DK Horton, MSPH, WE Kaye, PhD,
Div of Health Studies, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
*Equipped typically with supplied-air respirator, pressure-demand, and
self-contained breathing apparatus; fully encapsulating chemical-resistant
suit; coveralls; long cotton underwear; chemical-resistant gloves (inner);
chemical-resistant boots with steel toe and shank; hard hat; disposable gloves
and boot covers; cooling unit; and two-way radio communications.
†Also called nitrochloroform, nitrotrichloromethane, and trichloronitromethane.
The chemical abstracts service number is 76-06-2.1
‡Alabama, Colorado, Iowa, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi,
Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington,
§An event is the release or threatened release of a hazardous substance(s)
in an amount requiring removal, cleaning up, or neutralizing according to
federal, state, or local law.3
∥A substance that can reasonably be expected to cause an adverse
Brief Report: Exposure to Tear Gas from a Theft-Deterrent Device on a Safe—Wisconsin, December 2003. JAMA. 2004;291(15):1830. doi:10.1001/jama.291.15.1830