An asphyxiant gas is a nontoxic or minimally toxic gas which reduces or displaces the normal oxygen concentration in breathing air. Breathing of oxygen-depleted air can lead to death by asphyxiation (suffocation). Because asphyxiant gases are relatively inert and odorless, their presence in high concentration may not be noticed, except in the case of carbon dioxide (hypercapnia).
Toxic gases, by contrast, cause death by other mechanisms, such as competing with oxygen on the cellular level (e.g., carbon monoxide) or directly damaging the respiratory system (e.g., phosgene). Far smaller quantities of these are deadly.
Notable examples of asphyxiant gases are nitrogen, argon, and helium. Along with trace gases such as carbon dioxide and ozone, these comprise 79% of Earth's atmosphere. The atmosphere is mostly harmless because the remaining 21% is O2.
Asphyxiant gases in the breathing air are normally not hazardous. Only where elevated concentrations of asphyxiant gases displace the normal oxygen concentration a hazard exists. Examples are:
- Environmental gas displacement
- Confined spaces, combined with accidental gas leaks, such as mines, submarines, refrigerators, or other confined spaces
- Fire extinguisher systems that flood spaces with inert gases, such as computer data centers and sealed vaults
- Large-scale natural release of gas, such as during the Lake Nyos disaster in which volcanically-released carbon dioxide killed 1,800 people.
- Release of helium boiled off by the energy released in a magnet quench such as the Large Hadron Collider or a magnetic resonance imaging machine.
- Direct administration of gas
- Contained gas environment
- Climbing inside an inflatable balloon filled with helium
The risk of breathing asphyxiant gases is frequently underestimated leading to fatalities, typically from breathing helium in domestic circumstances and nitrogen in industrial environments.
The term asphyxiation is often mistakenly associated with the strong desire to breathe that occurs if breathing is prevented. This desire is stimulated from increasing levels of carbon dioxide. However, asphyxiant gases may displace carbon dioxide along with oxygen, preventing the victim from feeling short of breath. In addition the gases may also displace oxygen from cells, leading to loss of consciousness and death surprisingly quickly.
The handling of compressed asphyxiant gases and the determination of appropriate environment for their use is regulated in the United States by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has an advisory role. OSHA requires employers who send workers into areas where the oxygen concentration is known or expected to be less than 19.5% to follow the provision of the Respiratory Protection Standard [29 CFR 1910.134]. Generally, work in an oxygen depleted environment requires an SCBA or airline respirator. The regulation also requires an evaluation of the worker's ability to perform the work while wearing a respirator, the regular training of personnel, respirator fit testing, periodic workplace monitoring, and regular respirator maintenance, inspection, and cleaning." Containers should be labeled according to OSHA's Hazard Communication Standard [29 CFR 1910.1200]. These regulations were developed in accordance with the official recommendations of the Compressed Gas Association (CGA) pamphlet P-1. The specific guidelines for prevention of asphyxiation due to displacement of oxygen by asphyxiant gases is covered under CGA's pamphlet SB-2, Oxygen-Deficient Atmospheres. Specific guidelines for use of gases other than air in back-up respirators is covered in pamphlet SB-28, Safety of Instrument Air Systems Backed Up by Gases Other Than Air.
To decrease the risk of asphyxiation, there have been proposals to add warning odors to some commonly used gases such as nitrogen and argon. However, CGA has argued against this practice. They are concerned that odorizing may decrease worker vigilance, not everyone can smell the odorants, and assigning a different smell to each gas may be impractical. Another difficulty is that most odorants (e.g., the thiols) are chemically reactive. This is not a problem with natural gas burned as a fuel, but a major use of asphyxiants such as nitrogen, helium, argon and krypton is to protect reactive materials from the atmosphere.
Asphyxiant gases in mining
The dangers of excess concentrations of nontoxic gases has been recognized for centuries within the mining industry. The concepts of black damp (or "stythe") and afterdamp reflect an understanding that certain gaseous mixtures could lead to death with prolonged exposure. Early mining deaths due to mining fires and explosions were often a result of encroaching asphyxiant gases as the fires consumed available oxygen. Early self-contained respirators were designed by mining engineers such as Henry Fleuss to help in rescue efforts after fires and floods. While canaries were typically used to detect carbon monoxide, tools such as the Davy lamp and the Geordie lamp were useful for detecting methane and carbon dioxide, two asphyxiant gases. When methane was present, the lamp would burn higher; when carbon dioxide was present, the lamp would gutter or extinguish. Modern methods to detect asphyxiant gases in mines led to the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 in the United States which established ventilation standards in which mines should be "...ventilated by a current of air containing not less than 19.5 volume per centum of oxygen, not more than 0.5 volume per centum of carbon dioxide..."
- Inert gas asphyxiation
- Controlled atmosphere killing, a method of execution using asphyxiant gases
- Limnic eruption
- Mining accidents
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- Discussion of the Kursk disaster and death on submarines
- Kirk JC. Proposed minimum requirements for the operational characteristics and testing of submersible atmosphere monitoring and control units. Life Support Biosph Sci. 1998;5(3):287-94. PMID 11876195
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- Sahli BP, Armstrong CW.Confined space fatalities in Virginia. J Occup Med. 1992 Sep;34(9):910-7. PMID 1447597
- BBC article on the Lake Nyos incident
- OSHA article on asphyxiant gases accidentally fed into respirators
- Gallagher KE, Smith DM, Mellen PF. Suicidal asphyxiation by using pure helium gas: case report, review, and discussion of the influence of the internet. Am J Forensic Med Pathol. 2003 Dec;24(4):361-3. PMID 14634476
- Gilson T, Parks BO, Porterfield CM. Suicide with inert gases: addendum to Final Exit. Am J Forensic Med Pathol. 2003 Sep;24(3):306-8. PMID 12960671
- Shields LB, Hunsaker DM, Hunsaker JC 3rd, Wetli CV, Hutchins KD, Holmes RM. Atypical autoerotic death: part II. Am J Forensic Med Pathol. 2005 Mar;26(1):53-62. PMID 15725777
- Yoshitome K, Ishikawa T, Inagaki S, Yamamoto Y, Miyaishi S, Ishizu H. A case of suffocation by an advertising balloon filled with pure helium gas. Acta Med Okayama. 2002 Feb;56(1):53-5. PMID 11873946
- BBC Family of 'helium death' teen warn of inhalation
- NIOSH [1987a]. NIOSH guide to industrial respiratory protection. Cincinnati, OH: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, Centers for Disease Control, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, DHHS (NIOSH) Publication No. 87-116.
- OSHA page for nitrogen, a representative asphyxiant gas
- http://www.cganet.com/publication_detail.asp?id=SB-2 Link to pamphlet SB-2
- http://www.cganet.com/publication_detail.asp?id=SB-28 Link to pamphlet SB-28
-  Summary of CGA position on odorizing. Accessed 10/11/06
-  Full text of CGA position on odorizing. Accessed 10/11/06
- Mine Safety and Heath Administration article about mine fire survival. Accessed 10/12/06
- MSHA copy of the Mine Act of 1977. Accessed 10/12/06