Is it impossible to open a refrigerator door from the inside?

March 4, 2005

Dear Cecil:

Last night someone mentioned that once you are inside a fridge and have closed the door, it is impossible to open the door from the inside. Apparently this has to do with the pressure difference or some such nonsense. To me, it looks like one commits this impossibility every time the fridge door is opened from the outside. So, Cecil, before I empty the salad from my fridge and venture inside myself, can you tell me if I will make it out alive, or if my chilled corpse will disturb those looking for a glass of milk?

Well, let's see. Here we are, Spitz and Fisher's Medicolegal Investigation of Death (1993). On page 486 we find a photo of "three [dead] children [who] were discovered in a discarded refrigerator in an unused garage two days after having been reported missing by their parents." Their corpses appear to be room temperature, not chilled, but would definitely disturb anyone seeking a glass of milk, I'd say, and most likely so would yours.

Although the story has obviously gotten a little garbled over the years, refrigerators manufactured prior to 1958 were potential death traps--they really were impossible to open from the inside, not because of anything silly like pressure differences but because of the mechanical latches on their doors. Kids playing hide-and-seek would climb into an abandoned fridge in somebody's basement, pull the door shut, and realize too late they were trapped. The door seal prevented air from getting in and the kids' screams from getting out, and in a short time they'd suffocate. In 1956 the New York Times reported that during the previous decade 115 children had died in this way.

Some local jurisdictions passed ordinances requiring owners of old refrigerators to remove the doors or latches before discarding them, but eventually federal legislators decided the time had come for a national solution. Manufacturers balked, saying the technology wasn't available, it'd cost too much, blah blah blah. Congress finally said screw it, you guys figure something out, and in 1956 passed the Refrigerator Safety Act, which required that the doors on all fridges sold after October 30, 1958, be capable of being opened with a 15-pound push from inside. Miraculously, a practical, inexpensive technology immediately appeared--a magnetic door seal. Truth was, the new seal had been developed some time earlier by General Electric, which offered to license the system to other manufacturers, but industry experts caviled that it still needed work. Faced with a deadline, however, pretty much everybody adopted magnetic seals, which in the event worked just fine, and we still use them today.

Problem solved, eh? Not exactly. Plenty of old refrigerators, presumably bought in the first flush of postwar prosperity, were still out there, and as time went on and they began to be discarded, suffocation deaths rose. In 1961, after an 11-year-old boy died in a refrigerator in Brooklyn, hundreds of New York health inspectors prowled the city's vacant lots, yards, and cellars looking for old fridges and smashed the locks or removed the doors on 554 of them. Despite such efforts, at least 163 deaths were reported nationwide between 1956 and 1964, all in old-style fridges, and 96 between 1973 and 1984. The problem hasn't entirely disappeared--two kids in Guyana died in an old fridge in 2003. Though the press account is sketchy, odds are the thing had a mechanical latch.

You want to think today's public and private watchdogs are alert enough to prevent this kind of thing from recurring, and there's no doubt matters have improved. Consumer safety regulation in the 1950s was haphazard, driven largely by widely publicized incidents. In addition to refrigerators, for example, an uproar over girls being burned by flaming sweaters led to the Flammable Fabrics Act of 1953. Things got more systematic after LBJ created a national commission that led to the establishment of the Consumer Product Safety Commission in 1972.

Still, it'd be foolish to think some hazards aren't overlooked. Noting a rash of kids dying after being inadvertently locked in car trunks (11 deaths in three incidents over less than a month during the summer of 1998), researchers Patricia Waller and Carmen Eribes began calling state officials in charge of tracking child fatalities and found that nobody really knew how many kids died in car trunks--no reporting system had been set up for it, statistics were kept different ways in different places, etc. The officials all thought that if there were a big problem they'd be aware of it, and in fact Waller and Eribes turned up only a handful of additional cases. Given that nobody's really counting, though, who knows?

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