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What Happens If You Breathe Pure Oxygen

by Lyndon Langley
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What Happens If You Breathe Pure Oxygen

What Happens If You Breathe Pure Oxygen

Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been fascinated by science experiments. The first time my mom let me play with glassware at home, I poured water into a test tube and watched as bubbles formed and floated up through the liquid. A few years later I played with fire – not on purpose of course – when I managed to light some paper towels on fire while playing around with matches.  When I got older, I started doing more serious chemistry and physics experiments. One thing I remember from high school is how amazed everyone was that my teacher actually allowed us to use pure hydrogen gas for our experiments because it was so dangerous. Hydrogen burns are certainly painful enough without having to worry about an explosion!
I also remember how quickly things changed after I graduated college. Before then, I had always worked with chemicals, but once I left school, I stopped working with them altogether. It wasn’t out of fear or anything like that; just part of growing up. I suddenly found myself surrounded by people who seemed far too casual when discussing such dangerous substances. They would talk about mixing different chemicals together until they’d end up with something that looked harmless but could kill you if you breathed it in. And there were plenty of other chemicals that should have made someone stop in their tracks, but didn’t.
As we all know, breathing in clean air is essential to life. In fact, every single cell in your body needs oxygen to survive. As well, oxygen molecules need each other to form stable compounds. However, when you walk outside into the world, the atmosphere contains less than 21% oxygen. This means that most of what you breathe in isn’t usable to your cells. Instead, the nitrogen and carbon dioxide make up about 78%, while only 5.3% of what you inhale is oxygen. That’s right — only 1/5th of what you breathe is actually “usable” oxygen.
This doesn’t mean that breathing in polluted air will kill you outright. Most of us don’t go around suffocating ourselves with pollution. But the same cannot be said for oxygen itself. When you breathe pure oxygen, your body reacts in ways you might never expect.
The Blood-Oxygen Barrier
Have you ever noticed that whenever you’re watching TV, you start getting sleepy? Your eyelids get heavy and you find yourself nodding off, even though your mind is still very sharp? What causes this phenomenon is known as hypoxia (or low O2 levels). In order to keep you awake long enough to watch the next episode of whatever show you’re currently addicted to, your brain sends signals to relax certain muscles throughout your body. These relaxing effects cause you to fall asleep faster.
However, your brain does not send these messages when you’re breathing pure oxygen. Why? Because there aren’t any muscle groups that require relaxation. All of your muscles receive their commands directly from your central nervous system, which is why your heart rate slows down and your pulse becomes weak when you’re exposed to pure oxygen. You’ll feel exhausted, but you won’t fall asleep unless you want to.
In addition, your blood vessels become constricted due to the lack of available nitric oxide. Nitric Oxide is a hormone produced by your endothelial cells that allows them to open up for easier circulation. Without it, your vessels clog up and your blood gets trapped inside, leading to many health problems ranging from headaches to strokes.
Is this really true? Can you die from breathing pure oxygen? Yes, but not immediately.
Breathing Air Rich With Carbon Dioxide
Most of us think that breathing pure oxygen is similar to drowning. After all, both involve holding your breath underwater for a prolonged period of time. While this may be true, it’s not exactly accurate. Let’s say you decide to take a dive with no experience whatsoever. Once under water, you’ll notice that your lungs begin to burn rather badly. This happens because during submersion, your body releases carbon dioxide from its hemoglobin proteins. As soon as you come back up to the surface, your lungs demand fresh oxygen, which then combines with the carbon dioxide released from your bloodstream. This creates a highly toxic compound known as CO2.
The worst part is that your body actually thinks this mixture of gases is safe. So instead of sending you straight to the hospital, this poisonous compound merely makes your chest tight and leaves you feeling somewhat nauseous. In fact, when you hold your breath long enough, you will eventually pass out. It takes longer than 30 minutes to do so, however. By comparison, a person who breathes pure oxygen for one hour will pass out within 10 minutes.
If you’re wondering whether anyone else is affected by this process, the answer is yes. Anyone who spends time underwater suffers from this effect. Even divers with years of training can suffer severe lung damage from being submerged for extended periods of time.
There are two types of divers: those who stay down for several hours and those who spend short stints below the surface. Those who stay down for long periods of time suffer from a condition known as “the bends.” People suffering from this ailment experience pain in their joints and muscles, and sometimes develop fluid buildup between their fingers and toes.
While divers are usually fine with breathing pure oxygen, patients undergoing general anesthesia often complain of difficulty breathing. In fact, doctors performing surgery on people with emphysema often give them supplemental oxygen with greater than 21% purity to prevent this problem.
So what happens if you breathe pure oxygen for long enough? Will you pass out or collapse?
How Long Does It Take To Pass Out From Breathing 100% Oxygen?
It depends on the amount of pure oxygen you breathe. According to Dr. Robert Atkins, author of the best selling book titled “Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution,” there’s a formula that determines how long you can hold your breath before passing out. He claims that you can hold your breath for four times longer than you normally would if you were breathing pure oxygen.
A doctor named H.M. Kelloway performed a study involving seven subjects who breathed pure oxygen for three hours. Each subject took turns spending 60 minutes inside a sealed chamber where the oxygen level was increased gradually from 14% to 100%. At the beginning of the experiment, none of the subjects felt ill or uncomfortable. However, after three hours, five of the seven subjects became unconscious. Two suffered side effects including nausea and vomiting.
Why did Kelloway’s study yield such surprising results? Since his subjects were completely unaware of what was happening, their bodies thought they weren’t going anywhere near the maximum limit of 17 minutes. Their brains interpreted this false sense of safety as a sign that everything is okay. Therefore, they relaxed their muscles, resulting in unconsciousness.
Will We Ever Be Able To Breath Only Oxygen?
Yes, but probably not anytime soon. First, scientists need to better understand the harmful effects of taking in large amounts of pure oxygen. There’s also the matter of developing efficient delivery systems for pure oxygen. Currently, most medical facilities use pressurized cylinders filled with compressed oxygen, which is mixed with nitrogen. This type of oxygen delivery is already widely used worldwide.
One interesting development involves attaching metal tubes filled with pure oxygen to various parts of the human anatomy. For example, a woman can attach a small oxygen tank to her abdomen using a special belt. Whenever she wants to relieve herself, she simply presses a button, allowing oxygen to enter her body through her skin. Another method uses plastic tubing attached to a portable generator. Patients who undergo organ transplants can benefit greatly from this technology, as they now have safer access to pure oxygen.
Unfortunately, scientists haven’t yet figured out a way to create an effective device that can provide pure oxygen to the entire body in real time. Right now, the closest thing to this technology is hyperbaric chambers. These devices allow patients to sleep inside a pressurized room filled with pure oxygen. Doctors use this technique to treat decompression sickness, which occurs when divers descend too rapidly.
Although this treatment seems promising, hyperbaric chambers are extremely expensive and difficult to maintain. As a result, most hospitals are reluctant to purchase them. The downside is that patients must remain inside the chambers for hours at a time. Since it can take weeks for decompression sickness symptoms to disappear, this approach is obviously not practical for treating patients with acute conditions.
Of course, if you’re interested in learning more about the dangers of breathing pure oxygen, check out this article.
Sources:
[1] http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-90626/nitrous-oxide
[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypoxia
[3] http://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/001395.htm#headings
[4] http://www.mayfieldinstitute.org/news_room/2006/july/pureoxygen.html
[5] http://articles.cnn.com/2009-04-23/health/oxygen.death.report_6/index.html

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