In August, a gas tanker exploded not far from a nylon factory in Cantonment, Florida. And this winter, just time in for the holiday season, the whole country is facing a sudden shortage of Reddi-wip. These two events are directly related, and their connection reveals the complicated mechanics of bringing sweet whipped dairy topping to your holiday pie.
Reddi-wip’s key ingredient is neither sweet nor dairy but a gas: nitrous oxide, better known as laughing gas. Dentists use it to knock out their patients. Teenagers use it for whippets. And race-car engines use it for an extra boost, when nitrous oxide explosively decomposes into nitrogen and oxygen.
But most of the time, nitrous oxide is not exploding. It’s sitting inertly in refrigerators and trucks and tanks. “Most people consider nitrous oxide to be very safe,” says Dan Tillema, an investigator with the U.S. Chemical Safety Board. Tillema is investigating why that nitrous-oxide tanker exploded in Cantonment, Florida, one afternoon in August. The accident killed a plant operator, Jesse Graham Folmar, 32, who was filling the tanker at the time.
The explosion flung his body 50 to 75 feet. And it punctured a second tanker, already full of nitrous oxide. “It was like a bomb had gone off,” a nearby resident told WEAR-TV at the time. Surveillance videos showed two clouds rising from the wreckage. One cloud was dark, stained brown with the color of byproducts made in the explosion in the first tank. The other was fluffy and white; it was cold nitrous oxide escaping from the second, punctured tank.