Carbon Dioxide Hazards in the Workplace

Written by Robert E. Sheriff, MS, CIH, CSP, President

October 12, 2016


Carbon dioxide is used as “Dry Ice” in food storage, in medical preservatives, in carbonated beverages, as an inerting gas in vessels where an explosion of volatiles may occur, and in some fire extinguishers. It is also a byproduct of combustion, and involved in some chemical processes. Carbon dioxide levels can rise in confined spaces, as well as in poorly ventilated offices. Where these activities occur, the potential exists for overexposure to workers and others.

Carbon dioxide is a natural component of our atmosphere. Actually, it’s the fourth most abundant gas in the earth’s atmosphere. On average, the earth’s atmosphere contains between 385 and 450 parts per million. It is also referred to as a “Greenhouse Gas.”

Carbon dioxide has some interesting properties. It stimulates plant growth (plants use CO2 for food, transforming it to sugar in the presence of ultraviolet light (sunlight). Carbon dioxide is one of the three end products of mammalian metabolism: heat energy and water vapor being the other two. Interestingly, while carbon dioxide is a simple asphyxiant in concentrations high enough to reduce the oxygen concentration in air to hazardous levels, it’s also essential for any creature that has lungs. Receptors in the aorta, carotid arteries and the brainstem are sensitive to carbon dioxide in the bloodstream. If the CO2 levels in blood rise above a certain point, the breathing reflex kicks in and we begin breathing deeper and more rapidly. Breathing air supplied to divers and to patients on respirators contain up to 1,000 ppm (0.1%) of CO2 to ensure that the breathing reflex is stimulated. So, while breathing excessive amounts of carbon dioxide can be hazardous, not breathing enough can be hazardous as well.

Thus, there are both sides to this story: carbon dioxide is essential to life in appropriate concentrations but is hazardous at too low or too high concentrations.

Environmental and Industrial Hygiene consultants such as Atlantic Environmental, Inc. have the ability to test for hazardous levels of CO2 whenever the situation exists.

Our primary service areas for Industrial Hygiene Sampling are: NJ, NY, NYC, PA, CT, DE, MA, RI, Wash DC, WI, MD, MI, IL, VA, IN, GA, AL, NC, SC, TN, TX, OK, DC, AR, we can service most other areas of the U.S. but with some added travel charges.