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Why does breathing pure oxygen kill you? © Getty Images

Why does breathing pure oxygen kill you?

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

Asked by: Jane Hawke, Bournemouth

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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.

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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.

Authors

luis villazon
Luis VillazonQ&A expert

Luis trained as a zoologist, but now works as a science and technology educator. In his spare time he builds 3D-printed robots, in the hope that he will be spared when the revolution inevitably comes.

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