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There is a story behind this ...

... But I'm not sure I want to know it. It's probably either ridiculously banal or so screamingly surreal I couldn't put it in a work of fiction and preserve plausibility.

Either way, this is one for the Darwin Awards:

Am J Gastroenterol. 1993 Jan;88(1):122-6.

Fulminant acute colitis following a self-administered hydrofluoric acid enema.

Cappell MS, Simon T.

Department of Medicine, UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson (Rutgers) Medical School, New Brunswick.

A 33-yr-old white male presented with bloody diarrhea, leukocytosis, and left lower quadrant direct and rebound tenderness after a self-administered concentrated hydrofluoric acid enema while intoxicated from intranasal cocaine administration. Intraoperative flexible sigmoidoscopy and a gastrografin enema revealed severe mucosal ulceration and edema in the rectum and sigmoid colon. Laparotomy revealed an ulcerated, necrotic, and purulent sigmoid colon and intraperitoneal pus. The patient underwent a limited sigmoid resection and a Hartman procedure. Five months later, the patient presented with a rectal stricture which was resected. This case demonstrates that a hydrofluoric acid enema can cause fulminant acute colitis and chronic colonic strictures.

I like that laconic summary: "a hydrofluoric acid enema can cause fulminant acute colitis". No shit!

(Yes, I still have a residual medical sense of humour. Why do you ask?)

More to the point: why is self-inflicted damage funny, and third-party inflicted damage not?



Even more to the point: how on earth did you come across this story? Assuming that you don't while away the idle hour by reading sixteen-year-old back numbers of Am J Gastroenterol, you must have been researching something - but what? What unholy combination of search terms brings that back as a result? Aren't you supposed to be writing a sequel to Halting State, not the script for another Saw movie?


ajay: no comment.

(But if I mention that "Rule 34" includes a psychopath ...)


May I be the first to say "rectum, damn near killed him."

I've always thought schadenfreude--joy at another's pain--is the most screwed up emotion going, worse even than jealousy (pain at another's joy). But I don't think schadenfreude applies when the pain is self-caused in some way that ought to have been patently obvious. "Hmm, this stuff dissolves glass and metal. I wonder what will happen if I pump it up my butt?" At such blatant stupidity, one can laugh, cry, or scream. Me, I laugh.


An industrial chemist friend of mine pointed out once that this is the acid you want to handle the most carefully. Poisonous, highly reactive to calcium and the cornea of your eyes, and it numbs the affected area so you don't notice it eating into you.


Andrew: actually, there is something worse than hydrofluoric acid: chlorine trifluoride, the strongest known oxidizing agent (warning: PDF of safety data sheet).

To quote one particularly juicy bit: One eyewitness described the incident by stating, "The concrete was on fire!".


Surely it's only a Darwin awards candidate if he actually removed himself from the gene pool?


As for "why is self-inflicted damage funny"... I think it's a psychological defense mechanism. As long as we're laughing, we don't have to consider the possibility that, in a moment of weakness, forgetfulness, or confusion, we might do something equally dumb.


Doesn't this tell us more about cocaine than about hydrofluoric acid?


Alex: yep -- keep the cocaine away from the hydrofluoric acid store!


This actually puts professional torturers to shame. I remember reading that part of the art of torture is letting the imagination of the tortured doing the work, the imagination being far more capable of inflicting pain and fear than a (more or less) rational mind.

Anyway this show of bucolic stupidity sure beats the coffee enema for effectiveness.. As to the fun of it, isn't such a thing also a matter of cultural and societal values? It seems that the more violent the culture or society, the more damage inflicted by third parties becomes a source of amusement. Our own histories are somewhat of a showcase, not too long ago, public executions where an occasion for entertainment and partying.


Where do you get that stuff anyway? Cocaine will show up if you wiggle some money but hydrofuoric acid? I don't think I've seen that in any store I've visited (and I've visited some odd stores in my days!)


Air Products will sell it to you. But probably only if you look like you're a company that actually needs the stuff & has suitable safety precautions in place. I very much doubt that the general public will ever be able to buy HF: it's just too dangerous.

This individual presumably worked in a lab which worked with the stuff.

More to the point: why is self-inflicted damage funny, and third-party inflicted damage not?

I'm guessing that either Charlie is not a Three Stooges fan, or else he's never heard of them :-)

Or for that matter, what about "Tom and Jerry", "Bugs Bunny", et al?


Charlie @ 2: Warbucks?


HF is exceptionally nasty stuff, and this reminds me of a near-miss that a friend told me about: he noticed a purchase order for some large-ish quantities of HF and was puzzled because it wasn't something they ever used.

Furter investigation revealed it had been ordered by the maintenance department, and a chat was had with the foreman responsible, which went along these lines:

Q "What did you order this for?" A "Cleaning windows" Q "Er, why would you use that?" A "Well, it dissolves glass, and would really clean it." Q "Er, how were you going to ues it?" A "pour it into a bucket and use a rag, same as always"

After the gibbering stopped, it was gently explained that the stuff was Very Nasty Indeed, that anyone dipping a hand in it would need an NHS-issue hook shortly afterwards, and that even if they took all the safety precautions required and applied it to the glass, they'd end up with frosted glass that couldn't be seen through.

"Oh", says Foreman, "I suppose I'd better cancel that order."

"Yes, that would be a good idea."

(Words were had with Purchasing to pass all orders for "unusual" chemicals past the Tech Chemistry department before processing, in future.)

Chris. (Then again, that was the bunch who slipped an order for an Atlas Missile through the system for a bet on one occasion, and were rather worried about how far it got: "Do you need the entire missile, or just a specific part of it?" said the manufacturer's representative.)


Charlie, I realise this is tangential to your original intent (viz. why self-inflicted damage is funny)... and you probably already saw it; but Pubmed's "related articles" link provided this: "Colonic complications after toxic tribal enemas.", Br J Surg. 1991 May;78(5):545-8:

"Tribal enemas obtained from traditional healers are used widely in Southern Africa for a variety of indications. Inclusion of injurious substances such as potassium dichromate may cause serious colonic and renal complications."

That's another dose of the screamingly surreal. This presumably falls into the category of third-party inflicted damage exacerbated by ignorance. Ouch.


In an example of a 'reverse missile order' joke, a large unnamed distance-teaching university which pays my wages built a small part that would end up on Hubble...

The university's contracts department employs some people whose job it is to ask a number of standard questions of the end users about all university-built equipment. Perhaps some of these people know less about the context of research than they would do in an ideal world. So the accountant in question rang up the relevant bit of NASA, and read down the standard list, noting the answers as they related to the component. Straightfaced, s/he got as far as this one, at which point the other end of the line broke down in bemused laughter, and the university's scientific reputation went down the pan forever:

"When it's installed, is it going to be kept in a secure place overnight?"


For another ordering oops, it seems that in the early 1980s an individual at Ft Carson was attempting to order a desk lamp. Apparently he made a single digit error in the national stock number, and unfortunately it wasn't caught. Nothing happens for several weeks, and then a semi-trailer drives up with the item. Instead of a desk lamp, the unit receives a 14,000 lb anchor intended for a cruiser. The episode put a major dent in their maintenance funds since they had to pay for transporting back to California (Ft Carson is in Colorado app 1000 miles from the coast).


How about a concrete enema to follow that HF enema?

Rectal impaction following enema with concrete mix.



"Cocaines' a powerful drug!"


Third-party inflicted damage is always funny.

Provided that the thrid party is Moe Howard of the Three Stooges.

Nyuuck, nyuuck, nyuck!


If the problem is truly and only self-inflicted, then there's no one to punish, no bad person whose antisocial behavior might threaten us next. I hear that laughter is an anti-alarm signal, instinctively deployed when we see things that resemble danger to us, but aren't. "Someone's been hurt...but it can't happen to me."

Or, as Mel Brooks put it, tragedy is when I get a papercut, comedy is when you fall down an open manhole and die.


Just for fun, here's a graph of usage of the term "enema" in all pubmed indexed publications (titles and abstracts) since 1950

Interest seems to have really shot up in 1975, I wonder why...


@5: Good God, just reading that data sheet made me want to run away. I'm going to have nightmares about seeing a ClF3 truck on the highway now....


Matt: John D. Clark, author of "Ignition: A history of liquid rocket fuels" described ClF3 as being "hypergolic [self-igniting] with all known fuels, including rocket engineers."

There are worse substances out there, but most of them are radioactive.


What I admire about ClF3 is that when it's burned a hole in you, it decays . . . into harmless substances like hydroflouric acid, which themselves can kill you in several different and horrible ways.

How much is another hundred seconds of isp worth, in any case?


Self-inflicted damage is sometimes amusing because in some cases it's so amazingly stupid that the "victim" deserves the results of their stupidity. I think the same principle applies in cases of abuse inflicted by third parties: if the abuse was predictable, and deserved, but the victim forged ahead against good judgement/common decency...yeah, sometimes I can't help laughing.



2: not sure I want to read it now...

ClF3 is in fact on the list of "Things I Won't Work With". I notice it's actually a reagent that you use in making the even more exciting selenium tetraazide.


ajay: selenium tetraazide? Gulp.

"The experimental section of the paper enjoins the reader to wear a face shield, leather suit, and ear plugs, to work behind all sorts of blast shields, and to use Teflon and stainless steel apparatus so as to minimize shrapnel."

And that's for milimolar quantities at cryogenic temperatures.

Unsaturated bonds involving nitrogen atoms are not your friend ...


Hmm... azides are fairly unfriendly. (I think sodium azide is used as a mould inhibitor in laboratory reagents sometimes.) I remember the sentence about stability of certain compounds that I read somewhere: "diazobenzene perchorates will explode even in solution if poured from one vessel into another".

Thanks, but no thanks, I think.

Other fun stuff: Dean A. Grennell wrote an SF story that included a powerful explosive - Tulium Argate - and very many years later I found a book on "rare gas chemistry" that included details of how to synthesize Argoic and Xenoic acids. Needless to say, our little friend Fluorine is heavily involved, as are rather low temperatures to avoid things getting out of hand.

I think this sort of chemistry is best observed from a safe distance, and behind a substantial barricade. Chris.


I still want to know where the coke head got hold of the HF. We don't bother keeping the stuff on the premises, it's not exactly off the shelf.



Stable. Corrodes glass containers. Light sensitive. Incompatible with strong bases, metals, glass, leather, water, alkalies, concrete, silica, sulphides, cyanides, carbonates.


Extremely toxic. May be fatal if inhaled or ingested. Readily absorbed through the skin - skin contact may be fatal. Acts as a systemic poison. Causes severe burns. Possible mutagen. Reaction may be delayed. Any contact with this material, even minor, requires immediate medical attention. Do not work without calcium gluconate gel available to treat burns. Do not assume that gloves provide an impenetrable barrier to the acid. DO NOT WORK ALONE!

Ow ow ow ow.

Kind of sounds like the long-term residual complications might make simple suicide seem an attractive option.


LabRat@32: Some industrial plants use HF in reasonably large quantities. One more reason to get some book larnin' and stay away from the business end of said plants.

My favourite workplace safety trick is biochemists who wear gloves to work with mutagens, then wander around the building with the gloves still on, touching stuff that I touch with my bare hands.

How much is another hundred seconds of isp worth, in any case?

Apparently not much, as H2+LOX seems to be the preferred high-ISP combo (cryogenics being rather simpler than containment of fluorine compounds, apparently), and UDMH+N2O4 dominating the toxic hypergolics division. Though wiki claims ClF5+UDMH is a 'common' liquid propellant combo. I think I want to stay far, far away from whoever's doing that... (That's 'Cl' by the way. As in chlorine)


'Course, us environmental nuisances stick up our pale, uninformed hands and ask, "so where, exactly, does that fluorine in the exhaust go after the rocket goes off, sir?"

Gotta admit, I cringed more than laughing at the HF enema. My empathy is for whoever had to take care of the patient after he left the hospital.


At the metals lab I worked at a few years ago, a fun wee job was filling the HF measuring squeezy bottle from the 2 lite plastic bottles. Done in a fume cupboard wearing 2 pairs of gloves.

I'd also like to know how he got hold of it, because most HF I've seen has been in locked cabinets or other places not easily accesisble if you are high. Moreover I've had enough trouble sourcing the normal acids for my alchemical experiments.


And sometimes the doctors try to hurt you with the sigmoidoscopy prep. I'm of the age to have one and while I'm not happy about it, I'd be willing to have it if the standard prep wouldn't kill me. I've spent years trying to get to the Kaiser gastroenterologists to see if they'll let me use a less-harmful prep and finally managed last week. Now I need to make an appointment. Ick.


You might be interested in the blog that folk at NCBI have of unusual/funny papers picked from scientific literature ( ).


The words "hydrofluoric acid" and "enema" should not ever be seen in the same sentence.


HF! Gah. HF is commonly used in Silicon wafer processing, although usually in more diluted forms. It etches Si02 (glass) and not Silicon, so it is very useful stuff. But most people with wafer fab experience treat it as very, very nasty indeed. And this in an environment with Sulfuric Acid all over the place, as well as Arsine, Phosphine, Chlorine, etc.

The idea of someone self-administering HF in an way, even while high, is just stunning.


One of my favorite (sadistic?) humor sites is an old one on the WELL called rectal foreign bodies... .... Artillery shell anyone? "As the doctor was about to insert his fingers into the old man's rectum to remove the shell he said 'Of course, this shell is spent, isn't it?' 'Oh no,' said the old man 'There's enough ammo in that shell to blast a Messerschmidt out of the sky.' So the doctor called in the army bomb squad, who built a lead box around the old man's asshole and defused the shell in situ, before removing it."


Related via the subject of self-inflicted injuries due to drugs:

This discussion suddenly reminded me that I once corresponded with someone who had taken nitrous oxide in sufficiently large doses over a sufficient period of time that he had partially demyelinated some of his major nerves.

Large doses of LSD were also involved; he was already sure that he had telepathic powers, and he had decided while under the influence that he would be able to demonstrate telekinetic powers if he simply practiced long enough with enough LSD and nitrous oxide. Unfortunately for him, that's not how it worked out. Instead he ended up with chronic severe pain and multiple-sclerosis-like symptoms.

He was a lot more philosophical about it than I might have been.


From an Isp point of view, the best one is hydrogen/fluorine (400 seconds) though, you know, HF exhaust plume. Fly it over people you don't like very much, like PLUTO.

Though wiki claims ClF5+UDMH is a 'common' liquid propellant combo.

I doubt it, somehow. A bit of googling shows that a couple of foolhardy guys (in, I assume, an isolated hut) at Edwards AFB in the late sixties tried hydrazine/ClF5 in a bench test rocket, but I can't find any references to a flight test.


Charlie, please, PLEASE, don't mention the words 'Rule 34' anywhere near this subject. Please.


LOX is the preferred oxidiser for rockets not surprisingly but it needs cryogenic-handling pad facilities to use it in a launch vehicle. Using LH2 is another problem as the technical problems multiply due to the much lower temperatures involved -- it's one reason the Saturn V's first stage was LOX + kerosene and not fully-cryogenic LOX + LH2. The exhaust mass fraction is also poor due to hydrogen's low molecular weight -- as far as I know nobody has flown a LOX + LH2 first stage without strap-on boosters.

Combinations like UDHM + RFNA or mixed-acid are preferred for long-term storage in ballistic missiles and such although the smart money is going on solid rocket motors these days. The Shuttle's Orbital Manoeuvering System (OMS) motors use monomethyl hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide as they have good storage properties over a large range of temperatures but it means NASA had to develop procedures for handling the fuel/oxidiser residues in the tanks safely once the Shuttle is on the ground.


When I was in grad school, I shared an apartment with a chemist. Came home grinning ear-to-ear one day-- story was that a physicist showed up in his lab, asking for someone to fill his test apparatus with fluorine. Chemists looked over the apparatus-- exposed metal everywhere, no Teflon coatings, etc. Physicist insisted that he knew what he was doing, so chemists gathered around to watch-- and then, in the spirit of inter-disciplinary cooperation, filled his apparatus with fluorine. It melted.

And, oh, by the way, does damage due a cocaine-inspired HF enema qualify as 'idiopathic'?


I just want to point out that there are much worse chemicals from both the "corrosive" and "toxic" side of things than HF. Sure it's in the worst 0.1%, but that still leaves lots of scary stuff.


Best title ever: Rectal salami.

(I'm in the hall at eComm in Amsterdam, on the WLAN, plugged into the Google Wave conf backplane, and this nearly finished me with the public giggles.)



This resembles the semi-urban legend of bored supply clerks in the Navy ordering an Main Battle Tank (a foreign one to boot) or a mule. It's funny what weird items are available in the NATO supply system. Though the armed forces got wise and added a system of limitations to prevent said "accidental" orders.


MattF@47 Reminds me of an optics guy at a company I used to work for, who very carefully specified a precision optical cell constructed out of sodium chloride for it's excellent IR transmission, and then filled it with water.


Things I won't work with (by a pharma chemist) is extraordinary.

The chemicals are:

Dimethyl zinc Thioacetone Chalcogen polyazides Azidotetrazolate Salts Triazadienyl Fluoride Cyanogen Azide Chlorine trifluoride Fluorine perchlorate methyl fluorosulfonate Carbon diselenide Ozonides Polyazides liquid hydrogen cyanide Nickel carbonyl Hydrogen fluoride

One quote, just to give you a taste of the wonders within:

"... compounds with lots of nitrogens in them – more specifically, compounds with a high percentage of nitrogen by weight – are a spirited bunch. They hear the distant call of the wild, and they know that with just one leap of the fence they can fly free as molecules of nitrogen gas. And that’s never an orderly process."


Check out Isaac Asimov's essay "Death in the Laboratory" for a historical look at the difficulty of working with Fluorine. Google books has it.


monopole: Excellent!


Oh dearie me. Where to start?

In a previous existence, I used to handle HF on an almost daily basis. Vey dilute (2%) solution, kept in a PTFE bottle, for floating carbon-replicas of VERY small crystals off their glass slides, so I could look at the pretty shapes in an Electron Microscope. However. About once a month, one had to make up a FRESH pot of the dilute stuff, from the bottle of conc. Full face-mask AND specs underneath AND protective apron over my normal lab-coat AND rubber golves - and this was BEFORE modern H&S@Wk procdeures really got going (1972-79 approx)

My father became a really good explosives expert during WWII - they drafted him to be a civil servant - at the biggest explosive factory in Europe (Google for Ardeer factory) - he always said that the great thing about TNT was how safe it was. If the packing and storage containers had rotted (as they did, whilst vast quantities were stored prior to D-day) all you did was get a wheel barrow, trundle it out well into the open, break up a packing case, put an old newspaper under it, strike a match, and watch the pretty bonfire - quite safe! OTOH, he would echo a previous posters comment about unsaturated N-bonds ... But then almost all normal explosives rely on the energy locked up in Nitrates, various, do they not?

Then there was a more recent existence of mine, where I was supply-teaching, and my head of Dept (a biologist) came into the prep-room @ coffe-break, and asked me: "Greg, what do you know about old chemicals?".. me:"What ones, say?" She:"We've found this very old (It turned out to be 15 years older than the school itself - an interesting H&S@Wk question) glass bottle, and I don't recognise the label - is it dangerous?" me; "What does it say" She:"Picric Acid" me: "ARRRGGGH!" - runs out of room ....

It was about 180g of the stuff, bone-dry and crystalline. On full automatic, I phoned emergency services, and got:"Fire, Police or Ambulance?" me:"Bomb squad, please" phone operator:"Uh? Say that again?" In the end, we got 12 fire-engines and the Met bomb-squad in a Range Rover. Downside of story - deputy head of school sacked me two days later, because I hadn't consulted and gone through channels, and wasn't relaible. Getting the very real risk across to this arts-trained, politically correct moron (even if he did have a language degree) was not on the cards.

Oh, yes, picric acis was used by the frogs during WWI as an explosive - unfortunately it wasn't all that stable, and they lost at least one major battleship to an internal explosion as a result. More interesting data here and HERE O dearie me.


ajay @44 --

Cryogenic acetylene and ozone has a theoretical ISP well over 600.

The theoretical, well, cryogenic acetylene suffers from spontaneous detonation and the only thing ozone -- never mind bulk cryogenic ozone -- isn't is radioactive; mutagen, carcinogen, toxic, corrosive, fire hazard...


56: thanks, Graydon. I'll file that under "You see? By comparison, ORION is really quite a sane design!"


My high-school physics teacher decided that it would be cool to show his class how to etch glass. So, he brought a pane of glass to school, borrowed a bottle of hydrofluoric acid from the chemistry stockroom (without telling the chemistry teacher), rested the pane of glass flat on the sill of an open window, and drew a simple design on the glass with the acid. This worked OK for a few minutes, until the wind shifted. We ended up having to evacuate the classroom, and stuff rags into the crack under the door to keep the fumes out of the rest of the high school. I don't think they did all that thorough a cleanup afterwards, as classes resumed being held in that room the next day. The teacher didn't lose his job, but I suspect that the principal and/or school board probably read him the riot act. He could at least have done the experiment in the chemistry lab, which was equipped with a couple of vent hoods. This was in a small town in Kentucky, in 1974.



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