Sabin Russell Science Writer


A Voice Fading in the Mist: A Last Blog, on Fake Fog, and Ecstasy Deaths

A scene from the fatal POP2010 at the Cow Palace, May 29, 2010. Photo credit:

There is seldom a single cause of any tragedy or disaster. When the space shuttle Challenger blew up in 1986, it wasn’t just that there was a design flaw in the O-rings that were supposed to seal the hot gases within joints of the solid rocket boosters. It was damn cold that morning, and President Reagan really wanted some good copy to read into his State of the Union address that night. Technicians were advised to “take off their engineering hats,” and act like managers. Launch it! Those fragile, frozen O-rings cracked like crystal ware.

In 2003, when 100 people died at the Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island, it wasn’t just that some idiot thought it would be cool to use indoor fireworks as a special effect for the band Great White. The place was wrapped for sound in cheap plastic foam insulation that ignited, spread the fire, and filled the place with toxic gas. As the crowd surged for the exits, many made a wrong turn for the restrooms.

Now, on a much smaller scale, doctors and lawyers are sorting through the wreckage of lives lost or damaged in a series of giant, commercial dance parties that took place during the New Year’s, Memorial Day, and Fourth of July weekends in Los Angeles and San Francisco. These deaths will likely be called drug overdoses – consumption of illegally manufactured MDMA, or ecstasy, of unknown purity and potency. Combine that with hours of frenetic dancing to techno-pop in hot, crowded venues, and that’s a formula for heatstroke and organ failure.

But I wonder if they are missing one other ingredient: Theatrical fog, of all things.

Laser and strobe lighting effects -- shot through a haze of stage mist and artificial fog -- are as much a part of the rave experience as dreadful electronic techno-music and ecstasy. In this age of environmentalism and health consciousness, it’s worth noting that the entertainment industry is the only one I know of that still deliberately and unapologetically pollutes the air.

During raves, young people in various stages of intoxication dance themselves into a frenzy for hours, hyperventilating a potentially toxic brew of mist – aerosolized particles of mineral oil that linger in the air – and swirling clouds of alcohol-based fogs.

Is it harmless? Opera singers and musicians hate this stuff, and their unions have battled their theater managers about its use for years. Actors’ Equity and production managers have set exposure limits to theatrical fogs and hazes. Singers have claimed that modest exposures to “smoke,” as it is labeled in the stage direction, ended their careers. There have been several serious scientific studies of theatrical fog. They focus on its effects on people singing on stage with it for minutes at a time, or on those sitting in a music pit playing a number as the chemical clouds pour down on them.

The most recent is a five-year-old Canadian study of 101 employees in the entertainment industry. Professor Susan Kennedy and her team at the University of British Columbia School of Occupational and Environmental linked exposure to glycol and mineral oil mists to “acute and chronic adverse effects on respiratory health” of these workers. There was “chronic wheezing and chest tightness,”  “acute cough and dry throat,” and the symptoms increased with increased exposure. Lung function was “significantly lower among those working closest to the fog source.”

On May 29, the Skills DJ Workshop presented an electronic music festival – aka a rave – at the Cow Palace in Daly City. Sixteen thousand people attended, paying as much as $85 a ticket. Two young men died of suspected ecstasy overdoses, and nine other patrons were hospitalized, several in critical condition with kidney failure.

Dr. Kent Olson, medical director of the San Francisco Division of the California Poison Control Center, told me that the most likely cause of death and injury was drug-induced heat stroke: “The recent SF cases and those in LA were most likely due to a combination of higher doses, individual susceptibility, and ambient circumstances (warm environment, intensity of dancing) that would have contributed to drug-induced heat stroke --- which is a well known complication of MDMA alone.” But he also called my notion that stage fog might have contributed to the problem “an interesting hypothesis.”

Skills DJ Workshop spokeswoman Alexis Smith told me that six special effect fog machines were used during the “POP2010: The Dream” festival at the Cow Palace. Together, they consumed 12 gallons of fog fluid. Three of the machines were DF-50’s, which disperse a fine mist of mineral oil that lingers in the air, accentuating the beams of light flashing throughout the venue. Each DF-50 consumed 2 gallons of High Performance fog fluid produced by CITX.

If the claim is accurate, this is certainly interesting. According to the CITX web site , each DF-50 machine is designed to burn one and one half QUARTS of High Performance fluid over 32 HOURS. Now, the Cow Palace is a big place – 85,000 cubic meters, by my estimate – but those machines each generated a week’s worth of aerosolized mineral oil haze during the 10 hour event. Mineral oil is a petroleum distillate so pure that it’s considered safe to rub on a baby’s skin – but can anyone out there tell me what level of atomized oil mist is safe to breathe? What’s the safe level to breathe while dancing, for hours in high heat, high on street drugs?

According to the DF-50 Diffusion Hazer operating instructions , the “hang time” of this sort of haze is 3+ hours. The manufacturer stresses that, because the particles of oil are so tiny, “after a very short period of use the DF-50 will have produced more than a sufficient amount of atmosphere.” There are a few cautions listed: don’t blow the haze through a fan, “as this will result in build-up on the fan blades.” Also: “If the machine is used non-stop (this is NOT recommended) over a long duration, you may create a situation whereby the concentration of smoke is too much, which can result in a build-up of residue in the environment.”

But wait, there’s more…The festival special effects operators also used three G300’s, machines capable of producing either fog or haze. These used 2 gallons a piece of what Ms. Smith described as “water-based” haze fluid. Presuming that the operators used the recommended “C-Beam Fluid” to produce haze in the G300, this is hardly tap water.  According to manufacturer Le Maitre Pyrotechnics and Special Effects:  Do not drink it or use it in smoke machines except in well-ventilated areas. The Materials Safety Data Sheet for C-Beam does not identify the proprietary ingredients, but stresses their non-toxicity. It notes that when they are oxidized they produce pyruvic and acetic acids, which happen to be breakdown products of, respectively, glycol alcohol and mineral oil. Glycol alcohol is the standard ingredient in almost all commercial fog machines. There are food grade versions of it, but it is also an ingredient of antifreeze. It may be safe to swallow, but again – pardon my skepticism – what is the basis for the claim that it is safe to breathe?

One well recognized side effect of breathing theatrical fog is dryness in the throat. That is an interesting condition to add to the rave mix of MDMA, dancing and heat. Dehydration is known side-effect of MDMA. In response, ecstasy users tend to compensate by drinking copious amounts of water.  During a two-day rave festival in Los Angeles, over 114 people were hospitalized.  A 15-year-old girl died from an apparent ecstasy overdose – reports said that she drank cold water before losing consciousness, and an LA Times piece describe her as having symptoms of an electrolyte disturbance. It sounded a lot to me like hyponatremia, a sodium loss associated with athletes who consume too much water.

Two of 18 victims hospitalized during another rave event in Los Angeles, on New Year's Eve, suffered from hyponatremia. One participant at the event died, another suffered severe kidney damage, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which coincidentally reported on that incident two weeks after the San Francisco fiasco, and two weeks before the second fatal rave in Los Angeles.

As a science writer, I need to be the first to point out that my “hypothesis” about theatrical fog as a possible contributor to the rave/ecstasy overdose phenomenon is speculation.  It’s not the kind of story I would write for a newspaper, without a great deal more research, but I believe it is appropriate for a personal blog.  (Here's a cavaet, for example: in the most recent instance, the event took place outdoors, in the Los Angeles Coliseum. However, it was in Los Angeles, a town for which the term SMOG was invented…)

I do not claim that the use of this special effect is THE cause of these tragedies. To the extent that accidents and disasters are typically a convergence of unfortunate events, it think there is more than enough reason for people with expertise in these matters to take this into consideration. I just can’t help but wonder if, as we are dazzled by the splendor of these cool special effects, we are figuratively willing to swap our engineering hats for paper party cones and whistles. It's just a commerical music concert. Kids shouldn’t have to die for this.

It seems to me that some classic pump handle epidemiology is in order here: Where in these music venues were the victims doing their dancing – were they in close proximity to any of the fog machines? What were the concentrations of mineral oil and glycol in the air at the time – did they meet the minimum standards demanded by actors and musicians during their brief hours upon the stage? Isn’t a drug overdose a little too easy an answer? If some people are more sensitive to the side effects of heat, or ecstasy, or theatrical fog, would that combination prove dangerous for a small, but real percentage of people at one extreme of the bell curve?

To my former colleagues in legacy media, and in the blogosphere, I hope this little monograph might inspire a little digging, a little real reporting on the nature of these raving tragedies, which seem to be piling up.

I first wrote about the potential adverse health effects of theatrical fog nearly a decade ago, in a front page article in the San Francisco Chronicle . It was one of my favorite pieces during my 22 years as a medical writer at the paper, but as often happens in the journalism world, it landed with an unremarkable thud.

It did not generate a lot of interest then, but I have often thought about it when I read about ecstasy overdoses at fake-fog-shrouded dance clubs. I also think about it when I troll the web and find people hawking fog machines for kids at Halloween parties. Wanna buy some Swamp Juice?  As the ad says, “All Froggys Fog and Haze fluids are made from lab grade UV-filtered de-ionized water and pharmaceutical grade chemicals, each approved by the FDA."

Sure, let’s invite all the neighborhood kids.

I have to end this on a personal note. This is likely my last blog, and my swan song as a journalist of any note. Next week, I will begin a job as a writer at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. It is an exciting place. I will be surrounded by smart people trying to understand the universe, unravel the meaning of the genome, or trying to save the planet. I’ve also enjoyed my time as a freelancer, with bylines in the New York Times, and it’s been a nice hobby to be a blogger to my faithful audience of…well, let’s not go there. But I have had to face economic reality, and the reality is that, in this dreadful economic climate, with exciting new technologies abounding, at 58 I have aged out of journalism. I feel damn lucky to be working soon at one of the world's greatest laboratories.

A year ago, writer Chris Mooney included me in a piece  he wrote for The Nation, called Unpopular Science, bemoaning the decline in science journalism at the hands of the internet. Having become redundant at the San Francisco Chronicle last year, just as I was finishing up a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at MIT, I became Chris’ poster boy for exiled science reporters. Here, I’m writing the folo to that part of his story.

Like most veteran science writers, I have at times been saddened and embittered by the loss of a livelihood. More so I mourn the loss of an audience for the stories I wrote about HIV/AIDS, infectious diseases, health policy and general science. More than once, I have seen the web as a techno-kleptocracy, driven by a looting mentality that somehow dazzled my publishers.  My trusty laptop was just a portal to a vaster wasteland – vaster than any imagined by Newton Minow. Yet clearly the changes in media are so large and encompassing that it is foolish to take them personally.  Stories have to be told, and they will be – mostly by a younger generation, willing to work for less, and using tools that today only hint of their future potential.

For me, it has been a thrill to have been a reporter. I’m proud of the work I have done, and now I’m really looking forward to my new job.

So, not with a bang, but a Twitter… it’s -30- for Sabin.

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Posted by Sabin Russell

Comments (10) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Great story Sabin. You know, you should contact Law & Order or CSI and write an episode….Seriously. Then the idea will reach the masses…..

  2. Your devoted fans are unwilling to accept this as the end…
    Maybe Lawrence Lab will want a blogger. Or you’ll have time to pick this up again during your long BART commutes. Good luck with the transition!

  3. Sabin: I know where you’re coming from — and a bit where you’re going to. I’m there now. For almost 30 years, I was a practicing newspaper journalist, the last 17 as a full-time science writer at a paper that shall remain nameless. In recent years, I’ve watched as buyouts and layoffs decimated the staff, resources dwindled and it became increasingly difficult to do the kind of work I really loved.
    So, when the local university (one with world-class credentials) offered me a job as a public information officer writing about research in medical science, I said OK. It was an agonizing decision, but the right one. The new job, as yours will no doubt be, is filled with smart people doing interesting, important things. I still get to tell their stories, in a roundabout way.
    Roundabout because the old venues of news dissemination are shrinking, morphing and being re-invented. It is not a pretty picture. I can only hope it will get better. Whatever the promise of new technologies and the next generation of science writers, the present leaves much to be desired.

  4. “It’s not the kind of story I would write for a newspaper, without a great deal more research, but I believe it is appropriate for a personal blog.”

    I definitely agree. AND it raises the question which is the subtheme of the post: Who is going to pay for the “great deal of research” necessary to probe further into this story? Do we really expect all the research to be done for free?

    Not to worry, though, soon Sabin will get PAID for all this, and more! Good luck, and I think some new paths are about to open for you!


  5. Best of luck to my longtime former competitor and role model! Your work will be much missed, but at least I won’t have to tear my hair out over your scoops. 🙂

    Barbara Feder Ostrov
    Deputy Editor,
    Medical Writer, San Jose Mercury News, 2000-2008

  6. Sabin;

    As one who fears my date with “aging out of journalism,” I’m sorry to hear you are moving on. But that sounds like a wonderful place to move on to, and I wish you all the best there.
    Maybe there’s life after journalism? Perhaps you should report back.



  7. Best of luck to you, Sabin. You’re a talented and intelligent practitioner of the craft. The Labs people are lucky to have you.

  8. “…a younger generation, willing to work for less”
    Well, it’s actually not a question of “will”, Sabin, but I know what you mean. The problem for us a few years younger is that we have role models like you and your brilliant scoops in our heads, and we desperately try to still meet these high standards even with dwindling resources. I still don’t want to loose my hope, that the next generation won’t define journalism as the editing of press releases.
    Regarding your new job at the Lawrence Berkeley Labs, I feel happy for you, but very sad for science journalism. God luck at the Labs, but please keep blogging! your blog posts may not be the premium, thoroughly researched journalism, we all still want from you, but it will be much better than most “journalism” out there!

  9. Sabine, with all due respect, The Nation article quotes you as saying:

    > “If I was covering this story now,” he says, “I’d be all over the
    > Southern Hemisphere. It’s flu season there. How is Australia? How
    > is the infrastructure to respond to a new strain holding up?”
    > Those are stories Russell won’t be writing.

    You didn’t make a case as to WHY you should be covering such stories. What’s wrong with Australia’s science journalists, or those in the southern Hemisphere?

    It would cost a news organization a huge amount to pay for you to roam through South American or Australia seeking such stories. Where is the proof that your particular value was worth it?

    I hope it was — I’d honestly like to know.

  10. All the best to you, my friend. You’ll bring passion and talent to your new job, and I hope find happiness there.

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