French fitness blogger Rebecca Burger died June 18 after a whipped cream dispenser exploded and struck her chest.
According to the BBC, Burger died of cardiac arrest following the freak accident, which her family has said was caused by a faulty dispenser.
The device was not the kind of canister in which pre-whipped cream is typically packaged and sold in the United States. Instead, the dispenser — sometimes also called a charger — is designed so that users can pour regular whipping cream into it, and then get freshly whipped cream out.
Burger’s family shared a photo of the device, along with a warning about it, on Instagram.
Dispensers like this typically require “charger” cartridges, or capsules, that are filled with a tasteless gas called nitrous oxide. Each cartridge is usually about the size of a thumb and weighs about 25 grams (8 grams of which is the pressurised nitrous oxide).
The charger attaches to the dispenser, which punctures it, releasing the pressurised gas into the tightly sealed container. By the laws of physics, gas particles want to spread out, so they naturally flow out of the opening in the cartridge and disperse throughout the container. The gas gets mixed into the cream in the form of tiny bubbles, and when the cream is dispensed from the container, those bubbles have even more room to expand. That gives the cream a whipped, airy consistency.
It’s why a whipped cream dispenser can whip cream so much faster than a person could by hand.
In Burger’s case, however, the dispenser seems to have malfunctioned and exploded, sending one of these cartridges into her thorax, or chest (according to the description posted by her family).
Pressurizing an air-tight container can turn it into a rocket, since the condensed gas inside will rapidly spill out of any available opening.
A prime example of this the soda bottle-rocket experiment. By filling up a soda bottle with a little water, sealing it, and pumping it full of air, the bottle turns into a high-flying rocket the moment that pressure is relieved.
Rhett Allain, a physics professor at Southeastern Louisiana University who runs the blog Dot Physics at Wired, said that rapidly releasing all of the pressure in a whipped cream dispenser would basically create the same scenario as the gif shown above.
“It’s essentially a tiny high pressure water bottle rocket,” Allain told Business Insider.
An even more dangerous scenario might be one where the cartridge somehow detaches from the dispenser.
“A cartridge by itself would go even faster,” Allain said. “It’s basically a gas rocket bullet.”
Allain couldn’t say exactly how fast a cartridge might fly, but guessed it could be more than 30 mph. This type of hit would cause a severe injury, but it would only cause cardiac arrest in very rare cases.
John Greenwood, an assistant professor at the the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, told Business Insider that the forceful, direct impact of an object can cause the heart to stop if it hits a person’s chest at a specific time in their heartbeat cycle.
The heart’s electrical conduction system has distinct phases, the last of which is called ventricular depolarization. This is essentially the point at which the system resets and returns (very briefly) to its resting state in order to start the next heartbeat cycle. If the chest is hit at the exact time that the heart is in this depolarization phase — which typically only lasts for .1 to .2 milliseconds — Greenwood says that can stop the beat and cause cardiac arrest.
“It’s like a shock during the reset period, which really messes up the heart’s electrical conduction system,” he told Business Insider. “It’s probably more about the timing, but it would have to be a pretty significant force. It’s not someone pushing on your chest or smacking you or something.”
Greenwood says the typical example of this rare circumstance in textbooks is a pitcher who gets hit by a fast-moving ball right after it leaves a hitter’s bat. That pitcher would fall to the ground immediately, he says, but the heart can be restarted in this type of situation. If a patient is immediately given CPR and then shocked with an automatic electrical defibrillator within two to three minutes of the impact, they can come out of cardiac arrest without lasting damage.
“As unfortunate as it is,” Greenwood said of Burger’s death, “I think an important part of this story would be that this is an example of why early defibrillation and CPR is important. It is a reversible cause of cardiac arrest, and a young person can survive if your’e able to defibrillate them in time.”
Burger’s family has also urged people not to use whipped cream dispensers, claiming that “thousands of defective devices … are still in circulation.” According to the BBC, a French consumer group has issued warnings in the past about faulty connectors on the gas capsules in these devices. The AP also reported that the product has been off the market since 2013, and that its manufacturer, Ard’time, said efforts had been asked to alert consumers about the problem.
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