Flammable and explosive, diethyl ether looks to be a bad choice to inhale.
It was, however, one of the first surgical anesthetics.
According to the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, the first use was demonstrated in 1846.
The good news was the threshold between pain blockage and fatal dosage was wide enough that surgeons could save lives and limit the pain experienced by patients.
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The bad news?
Did I mention flammable and explosive?
Oh, and there is worse news. Ether gets more explosive as it ages.
Nitroglycerin — an explosive with a deserved reputation for instability — is 10 times less likely to blow up than old ether.
The 1980 article that follows called it the Atascadero Veterans Memorial Building, but it is called the City Administration Building today, and the article is edited to reflect that.
The building at one time had 96 quarter-pound canisters of the ether in the basement, one cigarette butt away from a big kaboom.
This story is from the April 24, 1980, Telegram-Tribune.
Deadly ether found:
Atascadero hazard taken out, exploded
A case of highly explosive ether stored in the City Administration Building for use in a disaster gave city and county workers a chance to practice the real thing Wednesday.
The City Administration Building was evacuated about 1:30 p.m. when a case of the Korean War-era anesthetic was found by County Emergency Services Coordinator Tim Ness.
The ether was part of a portable emergency hospital package placed in county disaster shelters in the early 1950s. It had become volatile.
The 96 quarter-pound canisters were removed from the building at 3 a.m. today. Red Cross liaison officer Dave Larton said that time was chosen because ether is more stable at cooler temperatures and because less traffic is on the roads then. Such aged ether, said Larton, is 10 times as sensitive as nitroglycerin.
A convoy of two sheriffs cars, a couple of firetrucks and a station wagon from the California Department of Forestry escorted a dump truck carrying the ether down windy and partly foggy Highway 41 to Morro Bay.
They turned left there and rolled along Highway 1 — at speeds up to 50 mph — and stopped at a firing range at Camp San Luis on the east side of the highway.
Members of the county bomb squad stacked the cases in a hole, attached two fuses to some plastic explosives and blew up the ether in a short flash of fire and smoke that disappeared 15 seconds later.
The Sheriff’s Department had intended to explode the ether at 4 a.m., but Capt. Arne W. Goble said they decided to wait until 8:30 a.m. to verify permission to use the range from the military camp.
Ness was separating the hospital package from other items stored in the building’s basement when he came across a wooden crate of ether.
He turned the crate on its side, when he spotted the marking identifying it as ether. He and Larton notified sheriff’s Lt. LeRoy S. Mosinski, who recommended the building be evacuated. Assistant City Administrator Ralph Dowell concurred with Mosinski, as did Mayor Robert Wilkins. They aided city officials in evacuating the seven city workers and crew of federal census enumerators attending a training session in the building.
The Sheriff’s Department bomb technician said the anesthetic turns to vapor at 73 degrees and gives off explosive vapors. He could smell the ether leaking from the canisters.
The basement door was left open to allow air to circulate around the canisters until they could be removed in the cool early morning hours.
A guard was posted at the door to keep people away from the basement entrance, and Atascadero Police Chief Richard “Bud” McHale warned officials at nearby Lewis Avenue School to keep children away from the building.
McHale said a blast was not likely to blow out the city hall walls, but had the potential to collapse the first floor.
Mosinski said he knew the thick, brick walls were able to stand an explosion, but he was not sure of the strength of the floors.
A cigarette butt thrown on the floor or a spark from flipping on a light switch could have set the gas off, he said.
Larton said federal officials told the county five portable hospital units were stored here. Three cases of ether were located in a wooden warehouse near the Sheriff’s Department headquarters on Highway 1 last year.
They were transported in a truck to the Camp San Luis Obispo firing range, surrounded with sandbags and exploded by munitions experts.
Larton said the Atascadero case was hidden behind a layer of boxes and was not visible until he and Ness had cleared out the area.