It Could Happen to You or Someone You Love is a short story written at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. It explores the feelings of being inundated with information while already in the middle of a disaster, and whether that creates a feeling of safety or adds to the sense of panic.
Most people are unaware of what it is, or how it works. And this lack of awareness is exactly what makes it so deadly.
What is grain entrapment? It is the curious phenomenon in which a human walking over a pile of grain may find themselves suddenly sinking into it and become quickly unable to climb out on their own.
Large quantities of grain, be them in storage silos, transport vehicles, or even in outdoor piles, can become a shifting tomb for the unwary at a moment’s notice.
Why does this happen? With several types of grain, clumps can form with humidity or as the produce spoils. In these cases, a crusted surface of grain could be hiding some pockets of air underneath. And so what may seem like a solid threading ground of corn can easily shift under the weight of someone’s feet!
The surprising physics of this phenomenon continues as you sink into the grain. The kernels move quickly and pack tightly in any space. Almost immediately constraining movement and trapping the body.
When the grain is up to your knees, you cannot free yourself without assistance. And once you have sunk down to your chest, a formal rescue operation will be required for any chances of escape.
The lateral pressure of piled grain is where the danger comes from. In a pile of corn every individual grain pushes against the one next to it, and that kernel pushes back against them. Put thousands and thousands grains of corn next to each other, and the force becomes enormous!
At just 1.5 meters deep, the lateral pressure of grain will reach around 0.7 to 1 psi. Bodies recovered from grain entrapment have shown signs of blunt force trauma, as if they had been in a car accident. Some have even included broken jaws.
Being engulfed by grain has a tremendously high fatality rate.
That amount of pressure around your chest would make it very straining for you to breathe. Not only that, but the compression is so strong that it prevents blood from flowing, and any oxygen that you breathe has a hard time even reaching your cells. The toxins in your blood accumulate, giving the victims intense cases of blood poisoning.
Although, of course, the biggest issue with breathing will be having the grain block airways directly.
Even for the rescue teams involved in grain entrapment operations breathing becomes an issue. Inside storage units, rotting grain will release dangerous gases such as carbon dioxide or nitrogen oxides. And the silos could also be filled with toxic spores from growing mold.
Temperatures also become a concern, in both extremes! Grain is often stored in ventilated facilities which along with humidity can chill the center of the pile down to -5ºC. At the same time, fermenting grain can release a great amount of heat to the outside of the pile. During one rescue operation, the temperature inside the silo reached nearly 50ºC!
It is not only for these reasons that the amount of successful rescue operations is extremely limited.
One of the complicating matters is that a victim cannot simply be pulled out the grain. Someone buried up to their waist in corn would need 4000N of force to drag them out. This amount of force will cause permanent damage to the spinal column, making the victim paraplegyc at the very least.
The solution involves digging the victim out with the strategic use of wooden or metal boards.
This is why it is said that a human body in grain takes seconds to sink, minutes to suffocate, and hours to locate and recover.
While the rate of accidents for rural workers has been dropping, grain entrapment deaths have peaked in the last decade. And even so, people are generally not informed about the dangers of grain.
Other grain-related hazards seem to get more attention from the media and concerned communities.
Grain dust explosions, for instance, are much more well known by farmers. They happen since organic matter, when it is finely divided and suspended in air, becomes a highly explosive material. Milling grain is therefore prone to this type of accidents.
This is surely another real danger of dealing with grain. But due to the sensational nature of this phenomenon, it has received a lot more coverage and so boasts a greater level of public awareness than grain entrapment does.
Perhaps the lower amount of public coverage for grain entrapment could also be explained by the horrific nature of being buried alive. Our minds tend to avoid lingering on this type of upsetting thoughts. But public safety requires that we bypass this instinct and examine these events closely.
Listen to the deposition of Mississippi farmer Bodie Blissett, who survived being trapped in corn up to his neck:
I don't even recall how high the corn was. It came down and got me with no warning. Too fast, too much, and I don't like remembering it.
Psychological issues are nearly unavoidable for the survivors.
But blissfully, survival is rare.
These accidents mostly take place in extremely isolated rural areas, miles away from potential rescue. Someone sinking in grain should not expect to receive help in time.
This posits the question of why people do not deal with grain in more careful ways. Following preventative measures closely could stop these unnecessary deaths.
The main way to thread carefully around the dangers of the grain is to not thread on it.
If grain is stored properly, there should be no need to ever enter a storage facility. It would not form mold or clumps and so require cleaning.
Poor storage and spoilage of grain are both the perfect conditions to create the danger of entrapment, and the biggest reason you would find yourself compelled to get on top of the pile. Life has a dark irony to it.
When cleaning must be done, it should be from the outside, with the use of a pole. And if entering the grain is an absolute necessity, you should never do it alone.
There should be no reason to walk down the grain on your own.
And yet, every year, people underestimate the risks of grain entrapment and disregard these guidelines. People unfamiliar with the grain, and experienced farmers alike.
There is a general lack of respect in the population for the true risk of this phenomenon.
How fast you become helpless in the flowing grain. How effectively it constrains your motions.
Before you realize what is happening, you can no longer free yourself. And then you are in it.
Hardly a minute in and escaping seems a distant thought. Even breathing, in and out, is now a struggle. Harder still after you exhale, and find that the corn has shifted to fill the space you’ve freed around your chest.
It feels like quicksand, and then hardened cement. It feels like a semi truck parked on your chest. It hurts. The pressure is bruising your limbs.
You can’t wiggle your toes inside your shoes, but you are still sinking.
Soon your head will be covered. If you are lucky to find an air pocket inside within the pile, you might be able to survive a few more hours. It is theoretically possible.
But even if you are still breathing, you are doing it poorly. Your chest and veins are constrained. It stings inside your lungs. That’s the hypoxemia. It will soon leave you sleepy and confused. You will welcome the numbness. You will daze off.
So many places you could have been, and yet you are here.
Did you think you were above the natural orders of physics? Above fluid dynamics? Above probability? 30 to 40 bodies a year. Why wouldn’t one of them be yours?
Most recorded entrapment cases occur in corn. It’s hard to imagine otherwise, when corn is all that surrounds you. Corn, corn, corn.
Corn was first domesticated by the Mexica people around 10,000 years ago. 10,000 years of corn. Your body will be retrieved in a fraction of that time. But in many ways, you’re already spending an eternity with corn.
The rotting maize around you is going through fermentation. Fermentation is a process wherein the sugars in a certain substance are broken down. It is an anaerobic process, which means it does not need oxygen to undergo respiration. Unlike you. You are an aerobic machine, and you need oxygen.
Right now the corn is transforming into ethanol, which accounts for the smell of alcohol you feel. It is also producing carbon monoxide, which is not helping you with your need to breathe.
Every flowing grain entrapment is a preventable incident. You could have prevented this incident.
In the last few years significant efforts were made to increase the availability of grain safety related resources including the distribution of a new grain safety DVD by the National Corn Growers Association.
Did you not watch the new grain safety DVD by the National Corn Growers Association?
Experts agree that the rising rate of entrapment deaths is due in part to the huge amount of corn being produced and stored in the world. As corn becomes more prevalent, more people will be in danger.
We must all be educated. Now more than ever.
Corn has become a staple food in many parts of the world, far surpassing its native range in the Americas. A greater mass of corn is produced every year than of any other grain. Over a billion tonnes.
Above you in this silo there is only about half a tonne, 500 kilos. Doesn’t it feel like more?
Raw, yellow, sweet maize kernels are composed of 76% water, 19% carbohydrates, 3% protein, and 1% fat. You are composed of 62% water, 1% carbohydrate, 16% protein and 16% fat. There is a clear incompatibility. You should not be here.
Corn, corn, corn corn corn. Corn corn corn. Were you not aware of corn?
You are now.
You will help many others become aware of corn. Your case will be publicised and will be used in public awareness demonstrations. With every death, a new life is preserved. With every loss, there is a gain.
As this issue ramps up (and it will), concern will spread, and the cause will get closer
and closer to being taken seriously. As seriously as we need it to be taken.
Awareness is the only solution. Eventually, panic and fear will be universal. Only then will the deaths will stop entirely.
Thank you for your death.
Where you are now is chill with humidity. Now that the kernels have stopped shifting, you can no longer feel them individually. They are a blanket, they are part of your skin, they are your only reality.
You are embraced. You are packed tightly. You are stored, with the grain, in this grain storage facility.
For additional information concerning this issue contact Professor Bill Field at Purdue University. He can be reached at 765-494-1191 for firstname.lastname@example.org. If you have personal knowledge of an entrapment in grain, we would appreciate hearing from you.