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Dangers of CO2: What You Need to Know

co2 safety hazards

The dangers of carbon dioxide (CO2) are not widely understood. Many people still confuse carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. Additionally, wondering if plants need CO2 to grow, why does the news report that high levels of CO2 are responsible for climate change and can be hazardous?

What are the dangers of CO2?

From a "danger" or health perspective, in normal outdoor air, carbon dioxide is not a dangerous gas. Unless you live underground or in a submarine you'll never have to worry about it.

However, for those who work and live in confined spaces, or work around tanks or cylinders of compressed CO2 gas or dry ice, CO2 can be dangerous. For instance, exposure to CO2 can can produce a variety of negative health effects. These can include fatigue, difficulty breathing, nausea, asphyxiation, and in some cases, even fatalities.

We here at CO2Meter have answers to some of the most common questions pertaining to CO2 dangers below.

What is CO2?

Carbon dioxide is commonly abbreviated as CO2 because it contains one carbon molecule paired with two oxygen molecules. It is a naturally occurring gas found in the earth's atmosphere. It is colorless, odorless, and tasteless; indistinguishable by humans.

By volume, dry air contains approximately 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, 1% argon, but only 0.04% carbon dioxide and small amounts of other gases.

At 0.04% CO2 (400 parts per million) in fresh air, you will never have to worry about CO2.

Carbon Dioxide is also on the Right to Know Hazardous Substance List because it is cited by OSHA, ACGIH, and NIOSH.

Is CO2 flammable?

Carbon dioxide is a non-flammable gas. This makes CO2 increasingly popular as a refrigerant in the commercial, industrial, and fresh food transport industries. While liquid CO2 does not have the same thermodynamic properties as specialized refrigerant gases, it is good at heat transfer and relatively insensitive to pressure loss.

What is a CO2 alarm system?

Carbon Dioxide (CO2) alarm systems are stand-alone solutions that hold non-dispersive infrared (NDIR) CO2 sensors in order to sense CO2 levels in real-time. A CO2 alarm system typically is equipped with both audible/visual alarm indicators or alarms, such as a loud siren or buzzer, as well as flashing lights or visual display. These indicators are designed to alert individuals when CO2 concentrations in a confined space or environment exceed the normal threshold to provide immediate warning of high CO2.

The primary purpose of a CO2 alarm system is to ensure the safety and well-being of occupants in enclosed spaces where elevated levels of CO2 could occur. Such spaces could include restaurants, breweries, wineries, walk-in coolers, grow rooms, industrial facilities, laboratories, and other CO2-producing areas.

It is worth noting that CO2 alarm systems are different from carbon monoxide (CO) alarm systems, which are designed to detect the presence of the highly toxic carbon monoxide gas. While both gases are harmful, they have distinct properties, sources, and health risks. 

How much CO2 is dangerous?

In nature CO2 gas is only about 0.04% of the total volume of gases in fresh air. However, when changing from a liquid or solid to a gas it expands to 535 times its volume. This means that in an enclosed area, even a small leak in a CO2  tank or cylinder can quickly increase CO2 levels to 3-5% of air making it dangerous.

However, studies have shown that at slightly elevated levels CO2 leads to headaches, loss of concentration and lower test scores in students

The most common way CO2 can be dangerous, is through normal human respiration inside an enclosed environment. 

Each exhaled breath contains about 3% CO2. As we breathe in a sealed environment, oxygen is slowly converted into CO2. This level of CO2 can result in symptoms like dizziness, confusion, fatigue, vertigo, headaches and even seizures or asphyxiation. 

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, OSHA, has determined the optimal breathing range to be between 19.5 and 23.5 percent oxygen. Serious side effects will also occur if the oxygen levels are outside of the safe zone. At levels 17 percent or below, your mental abilities become impaired.

When we discuss CO2 toxicity and dangers, studies show this occurs typically around 40,000ppm. Instances like this could occur when individuals are exposed to levels above 5,000ppm for many hours. Once an individual has been exposed to such a high threshold, CO2 can cause asphyxiation and is immediately dangerous to life and health.

Many CO2 related incidents have occurred in restaurants, breweries, indoor agriculture facilities, and stadiums to name a few. Always remember that in confined spaces or when breathing in a sealed environment, CO2 can quickly accumulate and your overall health could very well be at risk. 

CO2 Poisoning

CO2 poisoning occurs when breathing air with 5% or more CO2 by volume. The most common symptoms of carbon dioxide poisoning are headaches, dizziness, weakness, chest pain, and confusion.

There are no known effects of gaseous CO2 contact with eyes or skin. While it is an odorless gas, many people describe the smell of higher levels of CO2 as a sharp or acidic. This is because the CO2 is creating carbonic acid in your body.

Unlike CO2 gas, liquid or frozen CO2 (dry ice) is dangerous when handled. Proper insulated gloves and a face mask is recommended whenever handling dry ice.

CO2 Exposure Limits

To prevent additional incidents from occurring, CO2 standards and regulations have been created. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), the National Board Inspection Code (NBIC), and the International Fire Code (IFC) have all utilized recommendations from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH) exposure limits to require carbon dioxide monitors to be set in place. 

These parties all agreed to CO2 exposure limits in the workplace by NIOSH and OSHA:

  • Short Term Exposure Limit (STEL): 30,000 ppm for 15 minutes
  • Long Term Exposure Limit (TWA): 5,000 ppm average over 8 hours

Other areas to be aware of in terms of CO2 exposure include:

  • Skin Contact - Liquefied CO2 or Dry Ice, can quickly burn and irritate the skin once contact is made. For safety, gently remove any clothing that may restrict circulation, loosely cover the affected areas with a sterile cloth and immediately call a poison center or doctor.
  • Eye Contact - When coming into contact with Liquefied CO2 or Dry Ice, immediately flush eyes with lukewarm water and cover both eyes with a sterile cloth. Treatment is urgently required.

Natural Out-gassing of CO2

A rarely occurring but possible way CO2 can be dangerous is a sudden out-gassing of CO2 from the ground.

Out-gassing is defined as the release of a gas that was dissolved, trapped, frozen or absorbed in some material.

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 anything living inside it.

For example, in 1986 at Lake Nyos in Cameroon, a large emitted cloud of CO2 suffocated 1,700 people and 3,500 livestock in nearby towns and villages.

How to Avoid CO2 Dangers and Overexposure?

CO2 can be dangerous as a leak in a compressed CO2 system. Virtually every restaurant, bar or brewery in the country stores pressurized cylinders or tanks of carbon dioxide on premise. A CO2 leak inside an enclosed space, like the walk-in beer cooler, can become a potential death trap for anyone caught inside. While fatalities by CO2 leaks are rare, they do happen and individuals need to protect themselves while working around potential hazards.

Here are 5 steps to avoiding CO2 dangers:

  1. Never enter a workspace that stores or produces carbon dioxide without protective equipment since CO2, along with ammonia, methane, and hydrogen sulfide can quickly cause loss of consciousness and death.
  2. Never use a fire extinguisher or dry ice in a manner by which it was not intended.
  3. Monitor and ventilate for CO2 with CO2 safety monitors as required by code
  4. Never modify or tamper with CO2 systems or equipment
  5. Recognize and be aware of areas where CO2 can accumulate - provide proper education and trainings to protect others working with you.

CO2 Safety Monitoring

CO2 Safety Monitor for Restaurants, Beverage, Breweries, Distribution

To ensure CO2 safety among individuals, customers, and employees worldwide, CO2Meter designed the Remote CO2 Storage Safety 3 Alarm which meets all codes including the NFPA, IFC, NBIC requirements, and the OSHA and NIOSH standards, and is designed to protect customers and workers near stored carbon dioxide.

Currently, state and local municipalities are continually writing updated codes that require the use of CO2 safety alarms in buildings where anywhere more than 100 lbs. of compressed CO2 is stored or produced.

Importance of a CO2 Gas Safety Alarm 

The importance of a CO2 gas alarm lies in its ability to protect human health and ensure safety in environments where elevated levels of carbon dioxide can occur. Here are additional reasons why CO2 gas alarms are critical in the workplace:

  1. Health and Safety: Carbon dioxide is an asphyxiant gas, which means it can displace oxygen in the air and lead to oxygen deprivation. High levels of CO2 can cause symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, shortness of breath, and in extreme cases, loss of consciousness or death. CO2 gas alarms provide an early warning, allowing individuals to take immediate action to avoid prolonged exposure and potential health risks.

  2. Ventilation Monitoring: CO2 gas alarms can be particularly important in spaces where proper ventilation is crucial. Areas such as offices, classrooms, laboratories, or confined spaces may have limited airflow or be occupied by a large number of people, leading to increased carbon dioxide levels. Monitoring CO2 levels helps ensure that ventilation systems are functioning effectively or prompts individuals to take measures to improve air circulation.

  3. Indoor Air Quality: CO2 gas alarms can serve as indicators of overall indoor air quality, as well. High levels of carbon dioxide can be an indication of poor ventilation, the presence of other contaminants, or inadequate air exchange rates. By detecting elevated CO2 levels, alarm systems can prompt investigations into the root causes of the issue, leading to improvements in the indoor environment.

  4. Compliance with Regulations: In some jurisdictions or industries, there may be specific regulations or guidelines concerning CO2 levels in certain settings. CO2 gas alarms can help organizations comply with these regulations and maintain a safe working or living environment. Compliance not only ensures the well-being of occupants but also helps mitigate legal and liability risks.

  5. Early Warning System: CO2 gas alarms provide an early warning in the event of equipment malfunctions or leaks that may lead to an increase in carbon dioxide levels. This early detection allows for timely intervention, preventing potential accidents, property damage, or harm to individuals.

Overall, CO2 gas alarms play a crucial role in safeguarding human health, ensuring adequate ventilation, and maintaining a safe and comfortable environment in various settings. By alerting individuals to elevated CO2 levels, these alarms enable prompt action to mitigate risks and prevent potential harm.

CO2 Warning Signage

Any work areas around stored CO2 should also have the proper safety signage in place. For example, this is the OSHA CO2 warning sign designed to be posted at the entrance of any room that contains tanks or cylinders of compressed CO2.

OSHA CO2 safety signage

In addition, the National Fire Prevention Association recommends an NFPA 704 diamond sign to warn first responders of the presence of CO2 before they enter a building or enclosed area. 

NFPA 704 diamond sign for CO2

An NFPA 704 Diamond sign means:

  • Blue health hazard : 2 - Materials that, under emergency conditions, can cause temporary incapacitation or residual injury.
  • Red fire hazard : 0 - Materials that will not burn under typical fire conditions
  • Yellow instability : 0 - Material is normally stable, even under fire conditions.
  • White specific hazard : SA - This denotes gas is a simple asphyxiant.

For more information on CO2 safety monitoring and Carbon Dioxide dangers, speak to a CO2Meter specialist at Sales@CO2Meter.com or (877) 678-4259.

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