Medical Specialists Say George Floyd’s Ability To Speak Does Not Mean He Could Breathe

Medical officials say #GeorgeFloyd’s speech while his neck was kneeled on doesn’t indicate that he could breathe.

For nearly eight minutes, former Minneapolis police officer #DerekChauvin kneeled on the neck of George Floyd with his hands in his pockets while listening to Floyd say he “can’t breathe.” One of the officers involved mentioned that Floyd could speak, and another told the dying man that it takes “a lot of oxygen” to talk. Another officer told people watching nearby that Floyd was “talking, so he can breathe.” But medical experts say that’s not the case, saying the ability to speak should not be an implication that someone is receiving enough air to live, U.S. News reports. 

“The ability to speak does not mean the patient is without danger,” said Dr. Mariell Jessup, chief science and medical officer of the American Heart Association. “To speak, you only have to move air through the upper airways and the vocal cords, a very small amount,” and that doesn’t mean that the body is able to function and process air completely throughout the body, according to Dr. Gary Weissman, a lung specialist at the University of Pennsylvania.

The idea that someone can speak while also taking in enough air to live is a misperception that police forces have not been taught to believe. “I’m not aware of any standard training of police officers that lets them know, ‘Hey, if someone is still able to talk they are not having difficulty breathing, so you can just keep doing what you are doing,'” said Craig Futterman, professor at University of Chicago Law School and an expert on use of force.

In a recent article in the medical journal Annals of Internal Medicine, Weissman and other medical specialist break down how air circulates through the body. They wrote that when air is first inhaled, first fills the upper airway, trachea, and bronchi, where speech is created. It continues saying the “anatomical dead space” makes up about one-third of the volume of an ordinary breath, and only air that gets beyond this space goes to air sacs in the lungs for gas exchange. That is when oxygen is sent to the bloodstream, and carbon dioxide is removed as waste, U.S. News reports via the article. 

A normal breath of air is about 400 to 600 mL, while regular speech takes about 50 mL of gas per syllable. Saying “I can’t breathe” would require 150 mL of gas, the authors wrote. A person is able to speak by exhaling alone. However, the article says “adequate gas exchange to support life requires inhalation. … Waiting until a person loses the ability to speak may be too late to prevent catastrophic cardiopulmonary collapse.”

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