Why does breathing pure oxygen kill you?

We need oxygen to live, yet there's always too much of a good thing. Pure oxygen can be deadly. 

22nd July 2009
Why does breathing pure oxygen kill you? © Getty

Asked by: Jane Hawke, Bournemouth

Our blood has evolved to capture the oxygen we breathe in and bind it safely to the transport molecule called haemoglobin. If you breathe air with a much higher than normal O2 concentration, the oxygen in the lungs overwhelms the blood's ability to carry it away.

The result is that free oxygen binds to the surface proteins of the lungs, interferes with the operation of the central nervous system and also attacks the retina.

Contrary to popular myth, hyperventilating air at ordinary pressures never causes oxygen toxicity (the dizziness is due to CO2 levels dropping too low), but breathing oxygen at pressures of 0.5 bar or more (roughly two and a half times normal) for more than 16 hours can lead to irreversible lung damage and, eventually, death.

 


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