Recently the Phoenix fire department responded to a restaurant employee collapsing and struggling to breathe after walking up from the basement. A few months later, an 80-year-old woman died and another was found unconscious in a restroom in a Georgia restaurant.
What do both these incidents have in common?
Each of these women succumbed to the effects of high levels of CO2.
Carbon dioxide poisoning has occurred throughout history. Under the right conditions, mines, volcanoes, or fissures in the earth’s surface can suddenly leak tremendous quantities of CO2. The heavier-than-air carbon dioxide settles into low areas and becomes a death trap for any living organisms inside it.
For example, in 1986 Lake Nyos in Cameroon emitted a large cloud of CO2, which suffocated 1,700 people and 3,500 livestock in nearby towns and villages.
While this kind of tragedy seems far-fetched in modern society, in fact it is possible every day. Virtually every restaurant in the country stores pressurized tanks of carbon dioxide on premises. The gas is odorless, colorless and tasteless. A leak inside an enclosed space becomes a potential death trap for anyone caught inside.
What can you do to help prevent this tragedy?
If you are a restaurant or business owner, make sure you have working CO2 detectors near stored carbon dioxide. For example, the eSense FAI (fresh air indicator) with alarm will sound an 80dB alarm whenever CO2 levels exceed the 5,000 ppm limit set by OSHA.
If you are a first responder (police, fire, ambulance) learn the warning signs of CO2 exposure. The Phoenix Fire Department has produced an outstanding 18 minute video that could be used for training your team. In addition, we also offer low-cost hand-held CO2 alarms that can easily be included in your tool set.
If you are an elected official, make sure your local restaurant health inspectors are aware of the danger of CO2, and include unventilated or non-alarmed CO2 tanks on health and safety inspection checklists.
For everyone else, remember the signs of CO2 poisoning: disorientation, increased heart rate, muscle tremors, and shortness of breath. In addition, carbon dioxide reacts with saliva, resulting in carbonic acid and an acidic taste inside the mouth.