NIOSH Report on Elevated C[O.Sub.2]: A Cautionary Tale for Indoor Workers

Occupational Hazards, February 2005 | Go to article overview

NIOSH Report on Elevated C[O.Sub.2]: A Cautionary Tale for Indoor Workers


Coal miners, back in the old days, knew when the flame from a lamp or candle died, it was time to get out of the mine.

They even had a term for it: "black damp." In scientific terms, it referred to low oxygen levels and possibly elevated carbon dioxide (C[O.sub.2]) and nitrogen levels snuffing out their flame in the mine, says Lisa Benaise, M.D., MPH, of NIOSH's Division of Respiratory Disease Studies, based in Morgantown, W.Va.

While miners already are aware of the dangers of elevated C[O.sub.2] levels in confined spaces, the results of a recent NIOSH report underscore the need for a more widespread public awareness of this hazard.

The report details the investigation into a West Virginia couple's unexplained maladies--from blurred vision to breathlessness to "episodic mild confusion"--that authorities now believe stemmed from heightened C[O.sub.2] levels in the couple's finished basement and its adjacent crawlspace.

After investigations by the homeowner, a hired contractor and firefighters yielded few clues as to what was causing the rash of symptoms, authorities from county, state and federal health agencies descended upon the West Virginia home to conduct further tests.

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection detected C[O.sub.2] concentrations as high as 9.5 percent in the basement crawlspace, 11 percent in the crawlspace gravel and 12 percent in the basement floor drain of the West Virginia home, according to the report. The C[O.sub.2] level in normal air is around .035 percent, according to NIOSH, and NIOSH's recommended exposure limit for 15 minutes is 3 percent. A level of 4 percent is designated by NIOSH as "immediately dangerous to life or health."

NIOSH's recommended exposure limits for C[O. …

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