The Real Dangers of Carbon Dioxide

Carbon Dioxide (CO2) is a natural gas found in the atmosphere. It is tasteless, colorless and odorless, and cannot be distinguished by individuals.

The Real Dangers of Carbon Dioxide

Image Credit: CO2Meter

By volume, dry air contains around 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, 1% argon and 0.04% carbon dioxide, along with small amounts of other gases.

Under normal conditions, CO2 is not a problem at concentrations of 0.04% (400 parts per million).

However, there are three circumstances in which carbon dioxide levels become dangerous to individuals as a result of increased concentrations and exposure.

Breathing in a Sealed Environment

The most common circumstance in which CO2 becomes dangerous is in a sealed environment.

Exhaled breath contains approximately 3% CO2. In a sealed environment, breathing converts oxygen to CO2, causing oxygen levels to fall as the CO2 level rises. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, OSHA, the optimal breathing range is between 19.5% to 23.5% oxygen. When oxygen levels are outside this safe zone, serious side effects occur. For example, mental abilities become impaired at levels below 17%.

As oxygen levels drop from 21% to 17% in a sealed environment, CO2 levels will rise to 4%. At this level, CO2 can cause asphyxiation, dizziness, fatigue, confusion, headaches, vertigo, tinnitus and even seizures.

Higher levels of CO2 can be life-threatening, and prolonged exposure can start to interfere with bone calcium and metabolism.

A real world example of this situation was Apollo 13, where the build-up of CO2 was more detrimental than the shortage of oxygen.

Other problems from CO2 exposure include:

  • Eye contact – when coming into contact with Dry Ice or Liquified CO2, eyes should be immediately flushed with lukewarm water and covered with a sterile cloth. Urgent treatment is then required.
  • Skin contact – Ice or Liquified CO2 contact can cause rapid burns or irritation. Clothing that may restrict circulation should be removed and the affected areas should be covered with a sterile cloth. A poison center or medical professional should be called immediately.

Natural Out – Gassing of CO2

The second way in which CO2 can be dangerous is when there is a sudden out-gas from the ground.

Out-gassing is defined particularly in reference to indoor air quality, or the release of gas that was trapped, dissolved, absorbed or frozen in some material.

Under certain conditions, volcanoes, mines or fissures in the surface of the earth can suddenly leak huge quantities of CO2. Carbon dioxide is heavier than air and settles into low areas, becoming a death trap for any living organisms inside it.

A real world example is Lake Nyos in Cameroon, which emitted a large cloud of CO2 in 1986, suffocating 1,700 people and 3,500 livestock in the towns and villages nearby.

Leaking Compressed CO2 Systems

The third way CO2 can cause problems is through leakages in compressed systems. Almost all bars, breweries and restaurants store pressurized tanks of carbon dioxide on their premises. Leakages of CO2 inside an enclosed space becomes a potential death trap for anyone who is caught inside.

Although deaths from CO2 leaks are rare, they do occur.

The Real Dangers of Carbon Dioxide

Image Credit: CO2Meter

CO2Meter designed the Remote Storage Safety 3 Alarm (RAD-0102-6) to ensure CO2 safety among individuals, employees and customers worldwide. It meets all local fire codes, IFC, NFPA requirements and OSHA/NIOSH TWA standards, and has been designed to protect workers and customers near stored carbon dioxide.

New codes are continually being written by state and local municipalities around the country that require the use of CO2 safety alarms in buildings where more than 100 lbs of compressed CO2 is produced or stored.

Signs of CO2 Poisoning

It is important to remember the signs of CO2 poisoning: fatigue, disorientation, muscle tremors, shortness of breath and increased heart rate.

If the overall health of an individual has been severely affected by exposure to CO2, it is imperative that the nearest health care professional is contacted.

For more information on CO2Meter Safety Solutions, speak to an expert today: (877) 678 - 4259 or [email protected]


  • Image by: Häggström, Mikael. "Medical gallery of Mikael Häggström 2014". Wikiversity Journal of Medicine 1 (2). DOI:10.15347/wjm/2014.008. ISSN 20018762.

This information has been sourced, reviewed and adapted from materials provided by CO2Meter.

For more information on this source, please visit CO2Meter.


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