Carbon dioxide (CO2) forms approximately 0.04% of the nominal 5,000,000 gigatonnes of gas and aerosols that comprise the Earth’s atmosphere. It is essential to photosynthesis in plants and other photoautotrophs, and is also a prominent greenhouse gas.
Carbon dioxide is essential for internal respiration in a human body. Internal respiration is a process, by which oxygen is transported to body tissues and carbon dioxide is carried away from them.
Carbon dioxide is a guardian of the pH of the blood, which is essential for survival. The buffer system in which carbon dioxide plays an important role is called the carbonate buffer. It is made up of bicarbonate ions and dissolved carbon dioxide, with carbonic acid. The carbonic acid can neutralize hydroxide ions, which would increase the pH of the blood when added. The bicarbonate ion can neutralize hydrogen ions, which would cause a decrease in the pH of the blood when added. Both increasing and decreasing pH is life threatening.
The primary health dangers of carbon dioxide are:
Asphyxiation. Caused by the release of carbon dioxide in a confined or unventilated area. This can lower the concentration of oxygen to a level that is immediately dangerous for human health.
Frostbite. Solid carbon dioxide is always below -78 oC at regular atmospheric pressure, regardless of the air temperature. Handling this material for more than a second or two without proper protection can cause serious blisters, and other unwanted effects. Carbon dioxide gas released from a steel cylinder, such as a fire extinguisher, causes similar effects.
Kidney damage or coma. This is caused by a disturbance in chemical equilibrium of the carbonate buffer. When carbon dioxide concentrations increase or decrease, causing the equilibrium to be disturbed, a life threatening situation may occur.
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