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Brief Report: Exposure to Tear Gas from a Theft-Deterrent Device on a Safe --- Wisconsin, December 2003

On December 4, 2003, a hazardous materials (HazMat) release occurred at a jewelry store in Beloit, Wisconsin, when the store owner tightened a screw on the door of an old safe outfitted with a chemical theft-deterrent device. The device included a metal housing containing a glass vial of liquid, which cracked as the screw tightened, releasing approximately 4 ounces of tear gas. The store owner sustained eye and skin irritation and was treated at a hospital and released. Twelve persons in the building and persons in adjacent businesses were evacuated for 3 hours while a certified Level A HazMat team*, city firefighters, and emergency medical technicians responded to the release. This report summarizes the response to this event and underscores the need for persons who use old safes and vaults to know how to identify these devices and avoid tampering with them.

Beginning in the 1920s, certain safes and vaults included (or were fitted with) theft-deterrent devices containing chemical vials (Figure). Chloropicrin was used commonly in these devices. Other tear gas agents reportedly were used in similar theft-deterrent devices. The metal casing of these devices usually is approximately 3 inches wide and 6--8 inches tall; the device is fastened to the back of a safe door with screws. A major manufacturer of these devices was located in Wisconsin during the 1920s--1950s, and other companies sold similar devices. One such device was found in an Iowa bank in 1999 after a vial shattered, releasing chloropicrin and causing a pregnant bank employee to suffer eye, skin, and throat irritation (2). The number of these devices sold or still in circulation is unknown.

Chloropicrin was used as a chemical weapon during World War I (2). Documented symptoms of chloropicrin exposure include 1) irritation of the eyes, skin, and respiratory system; 2) lacrimation (i.e., tearing); 3) cough; 4) pulmonary edema; and 5) nausea and vomiting (1).

The 2003 chloropicrin release was reported to the Hazardous Substances Emergency Events Surveillance (HSEES) system operated by the Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services. Created and funded by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (3), HSEES is a multistate§ health department surveillance system that tracks morbidity and mortality resulting from events involving the release or potential release of a hazardous substance**. However, because reporting HazMat events to HSEES is not mandatory, participating state health departments might not be informed about every event. In addition, how many chemical releases from theft-deterrent devices occur in nonparticipating states is unknown.

Persons who use or are around older safes and vaults (e.g., bankers, jewelers, locksmiths, and vault technicians) should know how to identify these devices and should avoid tampering with them. If a device is identified, only trained persons (e.g., experienced locksmiths or HazMat personnel) should attempt to remove or neutralize these devices. In addition, appropriate personal protective equipment should be used when attempting to dismantle these devices (4). If the contents of a device are released, the area should be evacuated immediately. Persons who have adverse health effects (e.g., eye, skin, or respiratory irritation) should seek medical attention immediately.

Reported by: J Drew, W Otto, H Nehls-Lowe, MPH, Wisconsin Dept of Health and Family Svcs. DK Horton, MSPH, WE Kaye, PhD, Div of Health Studies, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.


  1. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards. Cincinnati, Ohio: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, CDC, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, 1997. Available at
  2. Cain T. Quick response eases fear of tear gas exposure. University of Iowa Hygienic Laboratory Hotline, 2000;38:2. Available at
  3. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Hazardous Substances Emergency Events Surveillance System Biennial Report, 1999--2000. Atlanta, Georgia: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, 2001. Available at
  4. U.S. Department of Transportation. Emergency Response Guidebook. Available at

* Equipped typically with supplied-air respirator, pressure-demand, and self-contained breathing apparatus; fully encapsulating chemical-resistant suit; coveralls; long cotton underwear; chemical-resistant gloves (inner); chemical-resistant boots with steel toe and shank; hard hat; disposable gloves and boot covers; cooling unit; and two-way radio communications.

Also called nitrochloroform, nitrotrichloromethane, and trichloronitromethane. The chemical abstracts service number is 76-06-2 (1).

§ Alabama, Colorado, Iowa, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin.

An event is the release or threatened release of a hazardous substance(s) in an amount requiring removal, cleaning up, or neutralizing according to federal, state, or local law (3).

** A substance that can reasonably be expected to cause an adverse health effect.


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