In our occasional series about gas portrayals in film and television, we take a second look at the Big Bang Theory, where we find out that hydrogen sulphide is a lot more dangerous than it appears to be on the show.
Much of The Big Bang Theory series focuses on science, particularly physics.
The crew of the show work hard to get all of the science right by employing a professor of physics and astronomy to review and correct scripts with technical errors as well as providing dialogue, mathematics equations, and diagrams used as props.
However, just like in a previous episode which I described in an earlier blog, the health effects of gas exposure are laughed off for entertainment purposes.
In the episode ‘The Hot Troll Deviation’, the main characters Sheldon and Raj have to share an office. Raj does not have a desk due to budgetary reasons so he buys one which takes up half of the office space. This annoys Sheldon who orders him to remove the desk. Raj refuses, which leads to a series of annoying confrontations between them.
At the end of the episode Sheldon’s friend Leonard smells gas coming from their office and knocks on the door.
Sheldon opens it wearing a gas mask and reveals he is making hydrogen sulphide (H2S) and ammonia (NH3) gas in the office to make it smell bad and force Raj out.
Raj refuses to leave and reveals he can handle the smell, however in reality, the inhalation of this gas wouldn’t just be unpleasant to the nostrils, but actually hazardous to health.
Hydrogen sulphide is a colourless gas with a very distinctive smell that is characteristic of rotten eggs. It is very poisonous, corrosive, flammable and explosive.
Prolonged inhalation of this gas causes respiratory tract irritation, vomiting, headaches, dizziness, drowsiness and convulsions.
Skin exposure causes skin discolouration, pain and itching, while the eyes may be affected by irritation, inflammation and conjunctivitis.
If a high concentration of hydrogen sulphide is inhaled, this may lead to collapse, an inability to breathe and death.
Just like hydrogen sulphide, Ammonia also has a pungent smell, hence why it was probably chosen for the show.
It is a colourless gas made up of a compound of nitrogen and hydrogen, and has featured in the news on several occasions because it has leaked in a workplace.
Inhalation of a low concentration of ammonia causes irritation to the nose and throat and this can lead to coughing, shortness of breath and difficulty breathing.
Exposure to a high concentration of ammonia in the air may cause severe burns to the skin, eyes, throat or lungs. Depending on the severity of the burns this could cause permanent blindness, lung disease or death.
These symptoms are not highlighted in the show at any point but Raj identifies it as a noxious gas, and tries to counteract the smell by lighting candles.
Leonard correctly identifies that hydrogen sulphide is highly flammable, resulting in an explosion in the office. Apart from a bit of smoke appearing behind Raj, he appears unharmed, which should not be possible.
Despite these inaccuracies, I still watch The Big Bang Theory, and so does my knowledgeable sister, who could probably teach them a thing or two, as she’s studying for a degree in Chemistry.
If you use ammonia or hydrogen sulphide in your workplace, you need to consider gas monitoring to keep your employees safe.
Author: Araminta Hartley
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