CO2 Toxicity.

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What are typical Carbon Dioxide levels in air?

What are the HEALTH EFFECTS of CO2 Exposure?

Potential Health Hazards of Toxic Gas Exposure

Toxic levels of carbon dioxide: According to occupational exposure and controlled atmosphere research into CO2 toxicology, CO2 is hazardous via direct toxicity at levels above 5%, concentrations not encountered in nature [except perhaps at or near an active volcano or at water-logged soils]. At these high levels there is risk of death from carbon dioxide poisoning. At lower levels there may health effects and there certainly are complaints of exposure at lower levels.


Photograph of a Drager hand pump used to measure carbon dioxide levels in the environment.

The photo shows a Drager colorimetric gas detection tube used to test the CO2 levels in air. In an indoor air test (in our laboratory) the detector found that the CO2 level was about 600ppm which is typical of indoor air and is an acceptable and safe level.


Basic Information about Concentrations of CO2 in Air

Symptoms of high or prolonged exposure to carbon dioxide include headache, increased heart rate, dizziness, fatigue, rapid breathing, visual and hearing dysfunctions. Exposure to higher levels may cause unconsciousness or death within minutes of exposure.

Distinguishing between high carbon dioxide levels CO2 and low oxygen levels O2 in air

What may be unclear in some cases is whether the sub-acute (sub-toxic) effects at modestly-elevated levels of CO2 in air stem from more from exposure to higher levels of carbon dioxide or whether they are due to reduced levels of oxygen. In an enclosed space such as a tight home or an enclosed basement or work space, increasing the level of CO2 is likely to simultaneously reduce the proportion of Oxygen (O2) in that same breathing air.

Some experts opine that a complaints that seem to be associated with high CO2 problem in many if not most circumstances are likely to be actually due to the corresponding reduction in available oxygen in air rather than high toxicity levels of CO2 in the air. As carbon dioxide levels climb above a few percent the relative proportions of gases making up that air change: the concentration of oxygen in the air inhaled is reduced as the amount of CO2 is increased.

More carbon dioxide may mean less oxygen: Let's say, sake of simplicity, that we're converting oxygen to carbon dioxide in an enclosed space. Then when the CO2 level has increased from its normal amount in air (about 0.03%) up to a higher concentration in air of 1.4% CO2 the concentration of oxygen in air will have decreased from 20.9 to 19.5%. Reducing the oxygen concentration from 20.9% down to 19.5% is equal to a 6.7% reduction in the oxygen level.

What are the effects on humans (and other animals) of reduction of the oxygen levels in air? At sea level, breathing air in which the O2 level has fallen to 16% percent is equivalent to being at the top of a 9,200-foot mountain - close to the level at which many people will experience shortness of breath while walking. 12% Oxygen in air at sea level corresponds to breathing normal air at an elevation of about 17,400 feet.


What are the Allowable Limits of CO2 EXPOSURE

Carbon dioxide exposure limits PEL and TLV set by OSHA and NIOSH

Carbon dioxide is regulated for diverse purposes but not as a toxic substance.

In summary, OSHA, NIOSH, and ACGIH occupational exposure standards are 0.5% CO2 (5,000 ppm) averaged over a 40 hour week, 3% (3,000 ppm) average for a short-term (15 minute) exposure [we discuss and define "short term exposure limits" STEL below], and 4% (40,000 ppm) as the maximum instantaneous limit considered immediately dangerous to life and health.


What laws regulate carbon dioxide exposure levels?

Of the several industrial hygiene standards-setting groups in this country, the most important and/or most quoted are the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) but these are recommended standards, not laws.

Standards promulgated by OSHA (called Permissible Exposure Limits or PELs) have the force of law. The other standards are advisory. However OSHA claims the power to force compliance with NIOSH "Recommended Standards" if it chooses to do so. (The main advantage of ACGIH Threshold Limit Values (TLVs) is that they are reviewed and updated annually; neither NIOSH nor OSHA updates its standards with any regular frequency.)

Definitions of Short Term Exposure Limits or STEL.  What is the definition of "short term exposure" or "Short-Term Exposure Limit (STEL)"? The ACGIH has defined STEL as the concentration (in this case of a gas in air) to which workers can be exposed continuously for a short period of time without suffering from irritation, chronic or irreversible tissue damage, or narcosis of sufficient degree to increase the likelihood of accidental injury, impair self-rescue or materially reduce work efficiency.

What is a "short period"? and what is "short term exposure"?: The definition of "short period" is provided indirectly by ACGIH:

  1. If during an 8-hour work shift (and before it has ended) a worker is exposed to a substance in excess of the threshold limit value, time weighted average exposure permitted exposure level for the entire shift, then that exposure has exceeded the short term exposure limit or STEL.
  2. If a worker is exposed to more than four STEL periods during the course of an 8-hour work shift, with less than 60 minutes between those exposure periods, then also that exposure has exceeded the STEL.