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Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D.

Fact or Fiction? — Breathing Fumes from a Portable Chemical Toilet Can Kill You

By January 3, 2014

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Breathing in fume from a chemical toilet can kill you!Portable chemical toilets are found at construction sites, festivals, parks, inside RVs... basically anywhere there isn't plumbing. They typically contain blue-dyed fluid which deodorizes waste, plus many contain disinfectants, such as formaldehyde, bleach, glutaraldehyde, nitrates, quaternary ammonia compounds and/or enzymes. Depending on the chemicals, the fluid may or may not give off toxic or irritating vapors, but in all cases, it's better to avoid spending too much time in a port-o-potty. Why? The methane evolved from the decomposing waste in chemical toilets and also outhouses actually has the potential to make you light-headed or even kill you.

How It Works

Methane is a component of flatus (farts), plus it is naturally produced during the decomposition of organic waste. It is an invisible, odorless gas that replaces oxygen when inhaled. A brief exposure or breathing in a small amount is okay, but an extended or high exposure can cause you to become light-headed, disoriented, and sleepy. If too much oxygen is replaced, you can become unconscious and die from oxygen deprivation. Plus, the gas is flammable, so it's a bad plan to light a match or smoke inside a portable toilet. And yes... people have died from that, too!

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