The toxicology of zinc chloride smoke producing bombs and screens

Ayman El Idrissi, Lisanne van Berkel, Nadia E Bonekamp, Diana J Z Dalemans, Marcel A G van der Heyden

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


CONTEXT: Zinc chloride (ZnCl2)-based smoke bombs and screens are in use since the Second World War (1939-1945). Many case descriptions on ZnCl2 smoke inhalation incidents appeared since 1945.

OBJECTIVE: We provide a comprehensive overview of the clinical symptoms and underlying pathophysiology due to exposure to fumes from ZnCl2 smoke producing bombs. In addition, we give a historical overview of treatment regimens and their outcomes.

METHODOLOGY: We performed a literature search on Medline, Scopus and Google Scholar databases using combinations of the following search terms "smoke bomb", "smoke screen", "ZnCl2", "intoxication", "poisoning", "case report", "HE smoke", "hexachloroethane smoke", "smoke inhalation" and "white smoke". We retrieved additional reports based on the primary hits. We collected 30 case reports from the last seven decades encompassing 376 patients, 23 of whom died. Of all the patient descriptions, 31 were of sufficient detail for prudent analysis.

RESULTS AND CONCLUSIONS: Intoxication with clinical signs mainly took place in war situations and in military and fire emergency training sessions in enclosed spaces. Symptoms follow a biphasic course mainly characterised by dyspnoea, coughing and lacrimation, related to irritation of the airways in the first six hours, followed by reappearance of early signs complemented with inflammation related signs and tachycardia from 24 h onwards. Acute respiratory stress syndrome developed in severely affected individuals. Chest radiographs did not always correspond with clinical symptoms. Common therapy comprises corticosteroids, antibiotics and supplemental oxygen or positive pressure ventilation in 64% of the cases. Of the 31 patients included, eight died, three had permanent lung damage and 15 showed complete recovery, whereas in five patients outcome was not reported. Early signs likely relate to caustic reactions in the airway lining, whereas inhaled ZnCl2 particles may trigger an inflammatory response and associated delayed fibrotic lung damage. Smoke bomb poisoning is a potentially lethal condition that can occur in large cohorts of victims simultaneously.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)167-174
Number of pages8
JournalClinical Toxicology
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2017


  • ZnCl2
  • hexachloroethane
  • ARDS
  • Smoke bomb
  • metal fume fever
  • poisoning
  • smoke screen


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