Sleeping Gas Theory

There is a rumor going around in our area that thieves are breaking into
peoples houses at night, gasing the occupants and then robbing the
house. The belief is that the robbers are using some sort of gas that
keeps the owners deeply asleep while the robbery takes place. My
questions is whether or not there is any type of gas that would do
this? It is a sort of “sleeping gas” theory. I am not aware of such a
substance and am skeptical that such a thing exists. What is the
straight dope on this dope?

Best and thanks,

Lloyd Cripe

Oh, my, this is an old story! I’m sure people who know more about these things will be along soon, but the short answer is no, no such gas has yet been discovered. Anesthesiologists would LOVE it if it did.

The simple, scary truth is that burglars can be very, very quiet.

I hope the burglars are making enough to pay for this probably very expensive gas.

Ooh! A modern-day Mad Gasser of Mattoon! Cool…alert the Fortean Times!

The Russians tried this, and killed 120 hostages:

Ah! I found an article I saved from the Usenet newsgroup alt.folklore.urban years ago - seriously, it’s dated 1996. In this case, this discussion was about robbers allegedly pumping sleeping gas into compartments of overnight trains in, I believe, Russia. The article points out several problems with that theory:

All known anesthetic gases are heavier than air. You’d have to flood the whole sleeping compartment, or in this case the house, in order to make sure the people were knocked out. That’s a hell of a lot of gas.

The margins are very small between risking someone waking up, and killing everybody.

You don’t get knock-out gas and not know about it. Most will leave a nasty smell, and all will leave you feeling woozy, groggy, or worse when you wake up.

Gas masks don’t filter out sleeping gas. How are the robbers getting through this, with portable respirators?

This doesn’t stop many people, including police departments, from believing it. In 1999 we were travelling in Germany and stopped for the night at a hotel located in a Rasthof on some Autobahn or another. When we came out to our car the next morning, someone had placed a leaflet under the windshield wiper, explaining in charmingly bad English that we should not attempt to sleep in a car or camper in the parking lot because of the risk of robbers with gas. While I suspect the hotel was at least a willing partner in this, the leaflet claimed to be from the local police department. And I’d heard it before, and have heard it since, in many other places, often with a stamp of approval from the police.

But it’s still impossible.

There have been several robberies in Sweden and other parts of Europe where people sleeping in their caravans, camper vans or truck cabs at rest stops have been robbed. Many report dry mouths, confusion and nausea, drawing the conclusion that they’ve been gassed.

As for the gas being expensive and unusable, the head of the Swedish Defense research Institute considers it quite possible to use carbon dioxide, which is both cheap and easy to get a hold of. One truck driver reports waking up from his newly installed CO2 alarm and seeing people running away carrying a gas tube.

It wouldn’t work in a situation like the Russian hostage crisis, and there is a real risk of killing the intended robbee, but I’d say it’s quite doable.

Article in Swedish, sorry.

Another Swedish article, here (top) reports findings of hexane in blood tests taken after a highway robbery.

Mostly hearsy, I freely admit, but I’d say it’s not impossible.

As for gas masks, you could always ventilate the enclosed space, or if it’s CO2, be quick about your business. It’d be enough to make sure the victims sleep more deeply.

Thanks for the post. Could you send me the link to the article that you quote? Thanks, Lloyd Cripe

If such an easy to administer gas existed we’d be using it in hospitals and in hostage situations. As someone linked above, the Russian special forces use a strong nerve gas and even with their budget and expertise werent able to save 120 hostages.

The wikipedia entry on general anesthesia has more info:

To be fair, there is a difference between making an already sleeping person sleep soundly enough not to notice you stealing their stuff and putting a conscious person to sleep, quickly and involuntarily in the hostage example and to the point where you can cut them open without waking them in the case of surgery.

Indeed. It doesn’t have to be instantaneous, undetectable or safe.

I had read somewhere on the internet that an elevated level of CO2, as opposed to a lack of oxygen, is what causes the feeling of suffocation. Is this true? If so, wouldn’t that wake the victims up rather suddenly and painfully?

The same sources suggested carbon monoxide or nitrous oxide for inducing unconsciousness, which would supposedly displace the oxygen without inducing the suffocation panic.

>Indeed. It doesn’t have to be instantaneous, undetectable or safe.

That’s fine, but even thieves arent stupid and know enough to keep away from a murder conviction. Something tells me if you ask random people who were robbed recently if they thought they were drugged they would probably think they were and will list a laundry list of symptoms. I say thats confirmation bias and a non-expert opinion until someone produces lab results that confirm exotic chemicals in the room or in their blood.

I want to thank all of you that have replied to my question. I also contacted a friend who is both an engineer and medical doctor with a specialty in radiation oncology and asked him the same question. He is a very smart and well educated guy who knows a lot about chemicals. I thought you might be interested in his response. His reply was the following:

…It would be a very impractical way to steal. There is generally a narrow dose range between wakefulness, sleep, brain damage, and death. It would take large amounts of a gas. It would probably be expensive. There would be no way to get an even dose throughout the house. I can’t see this as a reasonable option, even with an anesthesiologist on the team. If someone tried it, it would be likely to leave the persons awake or dead, possibly with both occurring in the same house. That would make the news…

Lloyd Cripe

Absolutely, and feeling groggy, confused and having a dry mouth are, at least in my experience, fairly common symptoms of waking up. I’m merely saying it’s possible, and doesn’t have to be expensive. Of course, I’m mainly talking about gassing very enclosed spaces, like a truck cab, RV or a caravan. A house would be a different story.

As for the lab results, there have been finds of hexane in blood tests done after roadside robberies. Unfortunately, the only cites I’ve found are in Swedish, but I’ll keep looking.

In the meantime, I’ve translated two articles.

Gas used in roadside robbery 2003-08-13
For the first time, the police have found sleeping gas in blood samples taken from two people that fell victim to road pirates during the summer.

The nightly roadside robberies have increased significantly this year, primarily on the west coast but also along the E4 north of Jönköping. The fact that traces of the petroleum-based gas hexane has been found means that the thefts will now be upgraded to robberies, a worse crime, says Bo Adin, who heads up the preliminary investigation, to Jönköpings-Posten. [Newspaper]

Police squads in Jönköping have been instructed to draw blood samples if gas is suspected. The samples must be drawn quickly because the gas traces quickly disappear from the blood.

Gas used in roadside robbery in Strömstad. 2005-07-16
It was hexane gas that was used in the roadside robbery of an RV outside Strömstad a couple of weeks ago. Blood tests taken from the affected family have now been analyzed by Rättsmedicinalverket. [Department of Forensic Pathology]

Hexane is a neurotoxin that causes unconsciousness. In large doses it can cause serious, permanent damage, according to Göteborgs-Posten. [Newspaper]

There is no suspect in the robbery outside Strömstad. The Police believe several gangs are operating along the E6 on the west coast. A man arrested in Göteborg last Thursday has been detained, under suspicion of involvement in multiple roadside robberies.

So far this year 80 roadside robberies have taken place along the west coast.

ETA: Fixed formatting

There was a Family Matters episode about this, but they didn’t specify the gas. Hmm.

The chances are that your friend is talking about medical anaesthetic gases, halothane and the like. These are both expensive, difficult to obtain, and risky as they depress respiratory function.

If this is being done at all, a likely candidate for the “gas” is premium grade cold starting fluid which forms a volatile aerosol of up to 60% diethyl ether, an early anaesthetic. Ether is one of the safer anaesthetics and might even work as described, but it has a characteristic odour and would be detectable in the victims’ blood. It is also an extreme fire hazard, and the idea of filling a room, or worse, a house with an ether-air mixture makes me wince. The slightest spark, such as from a lightswitch, could blow the walls out. Ether was replaced by chloroform as soon as it became available for this very reason.

If gas is being used in this way, I suspect the perpetrators are deluding themselves as to its effectiveness. Criminals are as susceptible to urban legends as anyone else, such as this gentleman who believed lemon juice made him invisible to security cameras.

Not a gas, but theoretically the burglars could blow powdered scopolamine into their victim’s faces while they sleep.

Slight hijack: Does ether, aka chloroform, work as a gas as effectively as the movies?

It seems all you need to do is pour some in a cloth and hold it over someone’s face for 5 seconds and they are out like a light. First off, is that even true? Second, any way to make chloroform into an easily dispensable gas?