Chemical Asphyxiant

By Tabitha Mishra
Last updated: January 17, 2022

What Does Chemical Asphyxiant Mean?

Chemical asphyxiants are toxic gases or vapors that prevents the delivery or absorption of oxygen within the body. Exposure to these asphyxiants can result in loss of consciousness or death.

Common chemical asphyxiants include carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide. Some of these substances are difficult to detect. Carbon monoxide, for example, is both colorless and odorless. When dealing with these gases in the workplace, then, it is important to follow standard operating procedures to ensure timely detection and response wherever there is a risk of exposure.

Safeopedia Explains Chemical Asphyxiant

Chemical asphyxiants operate in a different way than simple asphyxiants.

A simple asphyxiant works by displacing oxygen from a space, resulting in oxygen deficiency. Simple asphyxiants are hazardous since they can make it difficult or impossible for someone to get enough oxygen in their body.

Chemical asphyxiants, on the other hand, don't prevent the inhalation of oxygen. Rather, they prevent the body from making proper use of the oxygen present in its system. In other words, it disrupts biochemical processes and can occur even if the body has optimal oxygen levels.

The Dangers of Chemical Asphyxiation

Oxygen is a vital element for various physiological processes. If sufficient oxygen can't travel through the bloodstream or be transferred to the cells, it can result in fatigue, clumsiness, breathlessness, confusion, and increased heart rate. In more severe cases, it can also result in nausea, vomiting, convulsions, a coma, or death.

Common Chemical Asphyxiants and Their Effects

Carbon Monoxide (CO)

In mild cases, carbon monoxide manifests as:

  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Myalgia
  • Confusion

More severe instances of carbon monoxide exposure can result in more serious symptoms, ranging from neurological abnormalities to cardiovascular instability.

Vehicle exhaust is one common site of exposure. For this reason, mechanics, forklift operators, and underground parking attendants can be at higher risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Hydrogen Cyanide (CN)

In serious cases of cyanide poisoning (300 mg/m3), the skin turns reddish-pink and the person who has been exposed experiences central nervous symtpoms, such as:

  • Stupor
  • Coma
  • Seizure
  • Respirator arrest
  • Cardiovascular arrest

Cyanide poisoning is commonly seen in metallurgy, plastic manufacturing, and pesticide production.

Hydrogen Sulfide (H2S)

Hydrogen sulfide exposure can be fatal. At a low concentration, death is caused by pulmonary edema and congestion. At greater concentrations, H2S inhallation results in death by depressing the brain's respiratory center.


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