It’s now clear that MTV star Shain Gandee died of carbon monoxide poisoning while “mudding," or off-roading through mud, in his 1984 Ford Bronco. The 21-year-old was a key cast member of “Buckwild,” a raucous West Virginia-set reality show that’s been wooing young viewers, and distressing West Virginia politicians since it aired in January. With Gandee's death, talk of why "Buckwild" should be cancelled has reached fever pitch.
Critics argue the show uses the formula spawned by “Jersey Shore” (whose absence in MTV’s lineup, “Buckwild” was meant to fill), feeding off and egging on the type of bad behavior stereotypical to the region it’s depicting. In the past month, two “Buckwild” cast members have been arrested, one for trying to sell oxycodone and heroin, and another for a suspected DUI. Gandee’s death is already spurring online debates as to how tastelessly season two might go about handling it. Tasteless is sort of “Buckwild”s M.O.
In other corners of the internet, the talk is not about how the nature of Gandee’s death sets him apart from the rest of the country. Gordon Johnson, an attorney in Wisconsin who tracks cases of carbon monoxide poisoning nationwide, wondered in a blog post yesterday if the freak accident might in fact turn “Buckwild” into that unifying force: the source of “a teachable moment.”
In this case, the lessons may as well start at the beginning. What exactly is mudding? And how often does it turn lethal?
The idea behind the activity is pretty basic: you drive through mud. Details have become more complex in the past decade, as interest in mudding has surged through the South and parts of Canada, turning it into yet another wildly popular recreational sport that city officials and environmentalists hate (see also: drag racing and jet skiing).
Civic concerns about citizens plowing their way through mud are many. In 2011, a Texas county commissioner estimated $100,000 worth of damage to the county's dirt roads caused by mudders during a single winter. In an interview with a local paper, she described mud-happy "kids and adults on four wheelers," whose worst offenses "wallow out a spot that never dries up enough and just shuts that road down" until spring. The USDA Forest Service devotes a page of its website to the environmental hazards mudding brings on, including compacted soil, the destruction of native plants, and something presumably awful called fish smothering. However, these aren’t topics dwelled on at the exclamation mark-strewn web sites of the American Mud Racing Association, or Mud Truck Television, a media outlet dedicated to the semi-professional mudding circuit. "We know you love muddin' in your truck," starts out the pitch at MTT, before suggesting ways to protect that truck, driving surfaces be damned. As with bull fighting in the 18th century, that the sport is in its infancy in public awareness years is part of why it's so fun.
Competitive mudders are interested in speed; for casual solo mudders, much of the thrill is in getting as muddy as possible. Open-air all terrain vehicles, or ATVs, are the most notoriously dangerous rides of choice, but in rare cases -- as in Gandee's -- trucks and other enclosed vehicles can become deadly too. This can happen if the exhaust pipe gets clogged, in which case, the rule to live by, quite literally, is that bigger is better. Full on obstruction stops the engine from burning altogether, an infinitely safer outcome. Partial clogs result in burning that’s often not clean enough for the delicate operation of producing carbon dioxide emissions. The result is carbon monoxide, an invisible gas that mimics oxygen upon entering the body, heading straight for the blood stream where it proceeds to tamp out real oxygen to often dire ends, as it would if pumped into a fire.
Snow, not mud, is typically the culprit. This winter, the city of Boston issued a warning about carbon monoxide after two people, including one child, died in snow-clogged cars, and two others passed out.
In a phone interview, Johnson, who specializes in clients with traumatic brain injuries, often from poisoning, explained the link between weather and death rates as only natural. The gas takes “minutes, not moments” to extinguish oxygen from the bloodstream. In the event an exhaust pipe is fully obstructed, the deadly substance makes its way inside the vehicle. One might assume the feeling of getting woozy would prompt a person to open a window, or stop revving their car, before it’s too late. But as Johnson points out, that would not be the case after a blizzard: “Why do people keep their car running and their windows up when they’re stuck? Because they’re cold.”
So what does one do? What could Gandee have done? Never gun a car longer than a minute. "If you can't get it to move after 30 seconds, you won't be able to move it," Johnson reasoned. Also, it's probably a good idea to keep your windows open even during those 30 seconds. (Though there was a case last year in Maine of three people dying in a poisoned vehicle despite opening their windows, that nightmarish scenario is rare.)
Yesterday's police report doesn’t mention Gandee’s windows, though if he and his two companions were out at three AM as is believed, they likely kept their windows closed while stalled on purpose. Summer may last forever on "Buckwild," whose filming schedule is strategic, but West Virginia is, in fact, cold this time of year.