Dry Ice Goes Boom

Bombs made with dry ice caused a freakout at LAX. Should we be scared? By Abby Haglage.

“Obviously, it could hurt somebody but...I mean, it’s dry ice.”

That’s LAPD lieutenant John Karle talking. He’s the officer managing the investigation into four dry ice bombs confiscated from LAX this week. (A disgruntled former airport employee was arrested in the incident Wednesday.) But less than 24 hours after the bombs went off, Karle sounds at ease. “There’s a hierarchy,” he says. “Dry ice is way different than explosives.”

The four bombs—made up of nothing more than plastic bottles, warm water, and a few bits of dry ice, which is the solid form of carbon dioxide—brought the LAPD and FBI out in full force, but ultimately proved harmless. When two of them detonated, both in the Los Angeles airport’s newly renovated international terminal nicknamed the “crown jewel,” they left no property damage and zero injuries. Still, the incident gave the city a bit of a scare and generated some dramatic headlines, perhaps convincing some Americans that dry ice bombs are terrorists’ new plaything.

But while the unconventional explosives have the potential to cause significant damage, the reality is that they rarely do. A perfect Fourth of July noisemaker and the best toilet demolisher out there, they’re generally the province of pranksters.

Or, if you want, you. Because Halloween is coming up, now is an easier time than ever to walk into your local dairy store and buy a pound of dry ice without raising any eyebrows. No one will ask whether you plan to use it for a spooky steaming cauldron (the rising water vapors create a great fog effect) or an airport bomb. Dry ice isn’t illegal. Dry ice bombs—in most states—aren’t either.

Nor are they anything new, contrary to what the recent spin in the headlines implies. An abundance of YouTube videos of teenage boys giggling while detonating a Mountain Dew bottle filled with dry ice suggest that 2009 was really the bomb’s prime. Dating even further back, Jill Mery Levy’s 2006 edition of The First Responder’s Field Guide to Hazmat and Terrorism Emergency Responses includes a section titled “Acid Bombs and Dry Ice Bombs.” In it, the author instructs responders to look for “heavy frosting” on the outside of a plastic bottle as a warning sign for a potential terrorist’s dry ice bomb.

Dancing on the line between legal and illegal, they’re fair game for recreational explosive users. And they’re as simple as a bomb can be. A wikiHow page spells out exactly how to make one in just four steps—one of which is simply to watch it explode. The simplicity of the construction is thanks to the power of dry ice, a solid form of carbon dioxide that freezes at minus 78 degrees Celsius. A few dry ice pellets dropped into a small amount of warm water quickly sublimate (change from liquid to gas), producing an enormous amount of pressure on the walls of the plastic bottle—eventually, causing it to explode. Although plastic bottle manufacturers attempted to alter their cap designs years ago to stop them from being used for dry ice bombs, the modifications didn’t do much. Making one is still as easy as pouring warm water and dropping in a few pellets.

“In a surprising number of states, they’re perfectly legal—as long as they’re in a controlled environment and not used to cause harm,” says Jim Rawles, the bestselling author of five survivalist novels and the creator of A former U.S. Army Intelligence Officer, Rawles now devotes his days to preparing humans for the end of the world. Part of that preparation, as he writes about in his book How to Survive the End of the World As We Know It, includes becoming familiar with dry ice—both its advantages (keeping bulk food free from insects and their larva) and its potential for danger (if used as an explosive). But although powerful, they’re not complicated, he says. “It’s CO2, it’s not rocket science,” Rawles says, with a hint of snark.

Compared to the high-order explosives he witnessed in the Army, dry ice bombs are barely a threat. “Even gasoline or propane, or a number of things, have more potential explosion force. Gasoline is found in every American home. If someone were to create a fuel area explosive, for example, it could be just as devastating as dynamite.” A constitutionalist libertarian, Rawles is strongly opposed to any federal regulations on dry ice bombs. “As long as you respect people’s wellbeing, it should be legal.”

Even in California, one of the few states with specific regulations on the explosive, dry ice bombers often get the benefit of the doubt. When police in Palo Alto, California, tasered 41-year-old Joe Cimpi upon discovering a dry ice bomb in his van (which neighbors complained that he was living in), he sued the city and won. After police in New Mexico stumbled upon a partially constructed dry ice bomb in the car of Kevin Alverson in September 2011, they charged him with possession of an explosive. Two years later in federal court, the charges were dropped on account of the dry ice bomb (which Alverson planned “to detonate in the desert,” failing to meet New Mexico’s definition of an “explosive” or “explosive device.”

That’s not to say dry ice bombs never cause harm, or result in serious offenses. A dry ice bomb filled with glass shrapnel seriously injured three children in May 1990, according to a UCLA study, causing multiple lacerations that required “major operative intervention.” When 22-year-old Disneyland employee Christian Barnes detonated a dry ice bomb in Toontown near Roger Rabbit's Car Toon Spin in May of this year, he was arrested on charges of possession of an explosive—a felony which may land him in prison for up to six years. (Barnes pleaded not guilty.)

Laura Eimiller, a spokeswoman for the FBI in Los Angeles, told The Daily Beast that by Monday evening, authorities had determined that there was “no threat" associated with the incident at LAX. Since the violation appears to be on the state level rather than federal (California bans dry ice bombs), the LAPD has taken the lead. But Eimiller says the bureau will remain “intensely involved” in the investigation. “It doesn’t look like there’s any good motivation...but at this point it’s impossible to say,” she adds. "There's no established motive, but that doesn't mean everyone goes home."

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So goes the story of the dry ice bomb: some potential for danger, but, thankfully, little harm done.