Posted by: silverstar98121 | March 21, 2009

Burn, Baby, Burn

Back when I worked at Teeny-Tiny Hospital, it seemed we had more severe burns in the area than the population warranted. Part of it was that propane gas was a way of life. It was how people in the rural areas cooked, heated their homes and water. It had other uses, too. Many farmers had a portable tank they used to fuel a weed burner. Some tractors even ran on it, I believe.

Unlike natural gas, propane is heavier than air. So instead of dissipating, it tends to pool on the floor from a leak.  One little mistake with it, and you were in a  world of hurt.  In the year and a half I was at TTH, we had three severe burns episodes, including one that involved two brothers.

The brothers were sleeping on the floor in the living room of a house when the propane heater exploded. Both of the boys were severely burned, and had to be airlifted to Denver. But not before I spent a couple of hours debriding (cutting the dead skin off of) at least one of them. This, of course, had to be done in the operating room, with sterile instruments. Then they had to be wrapped in sterile sheets to be transported to Denver. I think they both survived despite severe burns over a large part of their body, but I truly don’t remember.

Another burn came in with the genius who decided to fill his propane tank at the gas station, and light a cigarette. He got 1st and 2nd degree burns on his face and arms. The treatment in those days was a thick cream which had silver nitrate in it. It added insult to injury, as the silver nitrate burned and stung when you put it on. We would always have to medicate the heck out of him before we put it on.

But the real winner, and potential Darwin Award nominee, was the guy who was out burning weeds with his portable tank, and decided to light a cigarette and take a leak at the same time. He burned his face, arms, and ummmmm…his crotch. Badly.

I will leave to your imagination what kind of pain he was in. And what it was like when we had to go put the silver nitrate cream on. It was so bad, that we had a mask set-up with a short acting anesthetic we usually used for laboring women that we had him use when we got to …that area. And still he screamed bloody murder. I think I would have nightmares if all these masked and gowned women came ito my room, mad me breathe some nasty stuff, and then put something painful on my willie.

Another propane accident I remember, although it happened before I was a nurse, is the time my Dad blew himself up. He was working under a house, repairing some plumbing. Although propane has an oderant added so you can smell it, apparently he didn’t. He used his striker to light his soldering torch and BOOOM!! He was under a added on back porch, and it blew the porch off the house. He was burned on his face and arms. The worst part, though, was that the lady of the house was on the back porch doing laundry, and was thrown into the air, and suffered a spinal cord injury when she came down.

So, if you are working with propane, please remember that it pools around your feet. And don’t be a genius who decides to light a cigarette places where you never should.


  1. Burns are the most awful injuries. We have a lot of people in SA who use paraffin with the equivalent rate of burns. Horrible.

  2. ouch. ouch. ouch. i whine like a puppy if i burn my finger in the kitchen… can’t imagine the pain of serious burns.

    ‘debriding’? sounds like big fun. add that to your list of party tricks… (blechhh… nurses rock….)

  3. It’s still very common to use these butane gas canisters in homes here. Normally safe in the kitchen, but when used in these heaters they sometimes end up with people dying due to bad ventilation.

    It’s actually surprising that there aren’t more explosions and house fires here because of these things.

    • Butane at least is lighter than air and will dissipate. All petroleum products are scary, however.

  4. Overall, I think the worst burns I’ve ever had have been sunburns (believe it or not). I hate getting burned.

    I’ve done plumbing repairs on copper when there was actually natural gas in the water and in the water line that ignited when the torch hit it.

    There wasn’t any legal fallout on your dad after the back porch blowout, was there? The woman with the spinal cord injury, how did she make out afterward? Or did you ever learn that?

    • I don’t remember any legal fallout from the explosion, or remember (if I ever knew) the outcome of that. I was a young teen, and not paying attention, I’m sure.

  5. Oh, chemical engineer here with a correction to a mis-statement “butane is lighter than air”.

    Not so. Air has a molecular weight (MW) of 28.97. Generally, MW is used to gauge relative density to air (using the ideal gas law).

    The natural gasses (lighter ones) are:

    Methane (CH4) – MW 16.04 (lighter than air.
    Ethane (C2H6) – MW 30 (>28.97 => toss up a bit heavier than air
    Propane (C3H8) – MW 44 (heavier than air)
    Butane (C4H10) – MW 58 (heavier than air)

    Of course, in terms of flammability, one has to take into account what concentration in air is required for the gas to be flammable.

    Each gas has upper and lower limits of flammability. Concentration of the gas in air below the lower limit and there’s not enough to ignite, concentration of the gas in air above the upper limit and the gas is too “rich” to ignite.

    Anywhere between the upper and lower limits and all bets are off.

    Petroleum “products” need only be handled safely, knowing what the energy release capabilities are.

    • Thank you, Rob. I knew I could count on you to fix it if I got it wrong. Now please go fix the Wiki article on butane to reflect this information.

      I agree, petroleum products need to be handled safely. Unfortunately, in my former line of work, I usually met the ones bucking for a Darwin Award.

  6. those stories are seriously scary. I burnt my hand on the oven (that’ll teach me to cook) four weeks ago and the scar still hasn’t faded at all 😦

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