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Carbon Dioxide CO2 Hazards in Food Industry

If you need an evaluation of carbon dioxide (CO2) hazards such as those discussed in this article, call us at 973-366-4660 or email us at info@atlenv.com for details and a free estimate.

Written By: Robert E. Sheriff, MS, CIH, CSP, President
February 26, 2019; Updated August 2021

Carbon Dioxide (CO2) Hazards in Food Industry

All living things need Carbon Dioxide (CO2) in order to perform their life processes. For example,  plants take in CO2 and release oxygen, while animals and humans take in oxygen and release CO2. At the same time, however Carbon Dioxide can be hazardous to the health of us humans. Carbon Dioxide is also known as a “Greenhouse Gas” since it is the main element of life and growth for plants. Carbon Dioxide is also essential for human existence. Our natural breathing reflex is not triggered by a lack of oxygen in our system; it is caused by a build-up of Carbon Dioxide. However, too much carbon dioxide in the air we breathe (I’ll talk about sources later) can trigger excess breathing rates causing us to hyperventilate. Further, if CO2 gets very high, it can replace the oxygen in the air and cause asphyxiation.

How can the CO2 levels get so high they replace the oxygen and cause us to hyperventilate?


Hyperventilation can result from a build-up of CO2 . This can occur in a building that is closed up and/or too many people (exhaling CO2) or other sources of carbon dioxide without adequate make-up air. This can possibly result in hyperventilating but it is unlikely that it is life-threatening.

CO2 Levels Dangerous to Life and Health

There are a number of situations where high CO2 levels are possible which is dangerous to your life and health.

OSHA has established an acceptable Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL) for an 8-hour day, and that limit amounts to 5,000 ppm (www.osha.gov/law-regs.html). The American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) also recommends a 15 minute Short Term Exposure Limit (STEL) of 30,000 ppm (www.acgih.org/forms/store/CommercePlusFormPublic/Search?Action=Feature.

Where can you get levels of Carbon Dioxide above 5,000 ppm or 30,000 ppm?

CO2 Hazards in Food Industry

Some of the most likely places where high CO2 levels can occur are in food processing. One commonplace is wherever “dry ice” is used. Dry ice is simply Carbon Dioxide in a solid-state. In open-air, it will rapidly melt into Carbon Dioxide gas. Therefore, achieving 5,000 ppm is not difficult where dry ice is used.

Another likely place is in the packaging of carbonated beverages. As “soda” or “pop” is bottled or canned, the liquid beverage is added to the containers and then concentrated Carbon Dioxide is forced under pressure into the liquid. Leakage or spillage to some extent always occurs and without adequate ventilation, the excess CO2 can get into the workspace where workers are situated. This can easily increase the levels of Carbon Dioxide to 5,000 ppm or higher.

Another location is where liquid Carbon Dioxide is used to keep food frozen or when it is used to flash-freeze foods. Again, the gas released can get into a worker’s breathing zone and exceed the safe limits.

There are locations in food processing and other industrial processes where Carbon Dioxide is used to “inert” the atmosphere to intentionally remove the oxygen to prevent a fire or explosion. This is usually done in closed vessels but such vessels are often opened to sample the contents, or remove the product, or leak, thus releasing Carbon Dioxide gas into the occupied space.

We have even found excessive amounts in excess of 50,000 ppm in a refrigerated warehouse where Carbon Dioxide was the refrigerant. The high level of CO2 was a product of an open vent in the storage tank. Every time the sun hit the storage tank it would cause CO2 to expand, and the vent alarm on the tank had malfunctioned, so Carbon Dioxide levels were elevated.

These are by no means all the places where workers could be exposed to elevated Carbon Dioxide but are the more common sources of potential worker exposure in food processing.


Sampling through the use of direct-reading meters and personnel monitoring can determine whether OSHA limits or safe worker exposure levels have been exceeded.

For more information regarding Carbon Dioxide (CO2) Hazards in the Food Industry, contact Atlantic Environmental. Contact us by e-mail (info@atlenv.com) or phone 973-366-4660 for further details and assistance.

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