The death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man accused of using a counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes in Minneapolis, sparked an avalanche of protests across the nation.
Video accounts show that Floyd cried out at least 16 times, saying “I can’t breathe,” while now-charged Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into his neck for about eight minutes, as three other officers stood by without intervention.
Meanwhile, one of the three officers involved said, “He’s talking. He’s fine,” media outlets reported.
Now, a group of clinicians and scientists are speaking out against the repeated claims that just because someone can speak, they can still breathe.
The professionals are calling the myth a “medical misconception” and warn against “relying on speech as a sign of adequate respiration — especially when [it’s] used to propagate injustice or violence,” according to a letter published June 25 in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
“The belief that a person’s ability to speak precludes the possibility of suffocation is not true and can have fatal consequences,” the group wrote. “The use of incorrect physiologic statements to justify the force leading to the deaths of Eric Garner and George Floyd is unacceptable. According to our oath as clinicians, it is our responsibility to the public to aggressively correct such misconceptions to prevent further deaths.”
The group of medical experts said they believe “the origin of the pernicious myth” may have stemmed from first-aid training for choking, which teaches that the inability to talk is a sign someone might have an object blocking their airways.
But the concept is not that simple, the experts say; it’s possible to inhale enough air to be able to speak, but not breathe.
This is because each inhale brings oxygen into the upper airway, trachea and bronchi — the region where speech is generated — but the small amount of air needed to talk does not facilitate necessary gas exchanges in the lungs “needed to prevent organ damage from hypoxemia,” the group said.
“It is therefore not surprising that such a person as George Floyd may have been able to both generate the sentence “I can’t breathe” and still experience severe air hunger (that is, dyspnea) and decompensate into a state of respiratory failure,” the group said.
Lets put this "if he could talk he could breathe" bullshit to bed right now! pic.twitter.com/kO8L5CDi4i
— Static Hanma (@TGStatic) May 29, 2020
An ordinary breath requires about 400 to 600 milliliters ( mL) of air, while each syllable of speech uses about 50 mL, the medical professionals calculated.
“Thus, stating “I can’t breathe” would require 150 mL of gas … George Floyd could have uttered those syllables repeatedly with small breaths that filled only the trachea and bronchi but brought no air to the alveoli [tiny air sacs in the lungs], where actual gas exchange happens,” the group said.
What’s more, the state Floyd was in is considered the “most uncomfortable and emotionally distressing quality of dyspnea,” they added.
Studies on war and torture victims revealed that suffocation was a stronger predictor of posttraumatic stress disorder than other forms of torture such as “being hanged by the wrists, electrical torture and beating of the soles of the feet.”
“The persistent use of malignant platitudes in the face of another person’s suffering is disturbing,” the group wrote. “At best, it represents the thoughtless use of heuristic shortcuts; at worst, it indicates deep gaps in empathy, toxic cognitive biases or malicious intent.”
So, when local, state and national leaders claim, “If you can say you can’t breathe, you’re breathing,” as the Mississippi mayor wrote on Twitter the day after Floyd died, the myth that a speaking person is a breathing one is spread irresponsibly, the group said.
Similar arguments were made after the death of Eric Garner who also cried out “I can’t breathe” in 2014 moments before he died in Staten Island after New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo put him in a chokehold while arresting him.