Earth Asthma
Environment Politics Science Teaching

Talking Until We’re Blue in the Face About Climate Change and Carbon Dioxide

In living organisms, including our own human bodies, there is a system called homeostasis. This system exists to make sure each element in your body stays balanced with all the other elements. It ensures that your body, as it exists, remains in a constant state that is compatible with life. When one element is thrown out of whack, we have compensatory mechanisms that gear up to balance this out. Our bodies are amazing machines when it comes to homeostasis.

The science of climate change has been explained many times to many people. Some people understand it, and some people don’t. Many people that don’t fully understand the process that unfolds with too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere understand that the scientists who study climate change know the process step-by-step. The scientists study it, tell us what will happen if the problem isn’t cared for, and suggest possible solutions.

But there are other people who do not fully understand the chain of events that happens when too much carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere who think that because they don’t understand it, it doesn’t exist and that the climate scientists don’t know what they’re talking about.

I would like to detail another complicated reaction. One that happens when too much carbon dioxide builds up, not in the atmosphere, but in the human body. There are scientists that study this, tell us what will happen if the problem isn’t cared for, and suggest possible solutions.

Every person that denies the events that occur as a result of too much CO2 in the external environment needs to think about what they would do if too much CO2 built up in their own internal environment.

Here goes:

In living organisms, including our own human bodies, there is a system called homeostasis. This system exists to make sure each element in your body stays balanced with all the other elements. It ensures that your body, as it exists, remains in a constant state that is compatible with life. When one element is thrown out of whack, we have compensatory mechanisms that gear up to balance this out. Our bodies are amazing machines when it comes to homeostasis.

But what happens when our homeostatic mechanisms are overwhelmed?

Let’s look at carbon dioxide, for example. We all know that too much of this gas is not good for our bodies. And most of us have the scientific knowledge to understand that we breath in oxygen and breath out carbon dioxide. We breath it out because it is not a useful gas for us.

Normally, we can balance the intake of oxygen and output of carbon dioxide even if we are faced with a little bit of extra carbon dioxide in our bodies. This happens by way of our bodies’ remarkable mechanisms of homeostasis.

But before we get into our bodies’ homeostatic mechanisms when it comes to carbon dioxide, there is one fact that needs to be understood: CARBON DIOXIDE IS AN ACID. So too much carbon dioxide in your body acidifies your internal environment. This is not good. And our bodies do what they can to expel this potential poison.

The first thing that our bodies do to get rid of extra carbon dioxide is to speed up respiration. That is, we start breathing faster to blow off the extra CO2. Unfortunately, this is where some people run into trouble.

What happens if we are unable to expel carbon dioxide through respiration (breathing)?

First of all, you may think this is an uncommon problem. After all, everyone you see around you is breathing. But there are certain subsets of people who are not always efficient at the oxygen/ carbon dioxide gas exchange. Like people with asthma, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), chronic bronchitis, or sleep apnea.

Many people suffering from these conditions have difficulty exhaling due to swollen and constricted airways as well as excessive mucus production. One can hear this difficulty exhaling as the sound of an expiratory wheeze when listening through a stethoscope.

Those in the health profession may observe other subtle symptoms in long-time sufferers. They sometimes refer to these types of patients as blue bloaters. Blue, because their lips may appear blue from cyanosis (bluish color of the mucus membranes and extremities due to lack of oxygen in the blood). Bloaters, because these patients often appear bloated or stocky because they are holding onto extra, unusable gases.

If you took a blood sample from an artery of one of these chronic patients, you would see that the partial pressure of carbon dioxide is way higher than it should be. That is to say, there is an increase in amount of CO2 in the blood that is being pumped AWAY from the heart to be used by the rest of the body. Additionally, the partial pressure of oxygen in the blood decreases, because the carbon dioxide is saturating the blood. The body is not getting the fuel it needs to function. Furthermore, the body is using the little oxygen it has to power itself and creating more CO2 as a byproduct of metabolism.

This leads to something called respiratory acidosis (carbon dioxide combines with water to form carbonic acid, H2CO3) and can ultimately be measured as a drop in the pH of the blood. The body tries to fix this in two ways:

  1. It tries to balance the extra acid by producing more base (in the form of bicarbonate).
  2. It tries to excrete the extra acid via the kidneys (meaning that your body tries to pee out the carbonic acid and hold on to the bicarbonate).

After the body maxes out the effectiveness of these two methods of maintaining acid/base balance, it may move on to another compensatory mechanism: increased erythropoiesis. That is to say, it will increase the number of circulating red blood cells. These extra red blood cells, the body thinks, will help more oxygen circulate through the blood. It makes sense because oxygen attaches itself to the hemoglobin in the red blood cells as if it was riding on a trolley through San Francisco. It travels to where it needs to go, then hops off to power a muscle somewhere.

Unfortunately, too many red blood cells can be produced. When this happens, it is called polycythemia. Simply stated, too many red blood cells can clog up your blood vessels, leading to impaired circulation and even stroke.

Another thing your body does when faced with decreased oxygen supply is to cut off circulation to parts of your lungs. This increases the blood pressure in your lungs, which increases the amount of effort the right side of your heart needs to exert to push the blood through your lungs, which can then lead to right-sided heart failure.

On top of all that, increased levels of CO2 in your blood causes headaches, confusion, sleepiness, and increased intracranial pressure (in and around your brain).

Scientists who have studied this know what’s going on and know how to make it better. They’re called physicians. I’m sure that if you had any of these symptoms, you would trust the experts with your care.

There are other scientists who study what happens to the earth on a larger scale if too much carbon dioxide builds up in our external environment. They’re called climate scientists.

Think about it.

Reference: http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/301574-overview

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