Following an incident review of a 2011 carbonated beverage CO2 leak, the Phoenix, Ariz. Fire Department compiled this video report examining the danger CO2 leaks can pose to first responders.

Several serious incidents around the nation involving hazardous concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) because of improperly installed or poorly maintained carbonated beverage systems point to the need to raise awareness about the importance of safety with the systems used widely in restaurants, convenience stores and other locations.

The incidents have led to injuries and even death to customers or employees and also posed hazards for responding emergency workers, who were not aware initially of the type of hazard they were facing. While carbon dioxide is used to carbonate most carbonated beverages, the potential problem can arise only when there are problems with fountain beverage systems that require filling carbon dioxide containers on site. It’s estimated there are more than 250,000 of these systems in the U.S., with an estimated 10,000 in Missouri.

Carbon dioxide is a colorless, odorless, faintly acidic-tasting, non-flammable gas. It can be deadly even when normal oxygen levels are present. Reaching hazardous levels of carbon dioxide can occur quickly and without warning and result in serious health effects or death. Because CO2 is 1.5 times heavier than air, leaking CO2 can accumulate at floor level in improperly ventilated or unventilated rooms, not necessarily limited to the container’s location and in low areas, such as basements. Even slow leaks can cause hazardous concentrations of carbon dioxide.

Ventilation systems should exhaust from the lowest level and allow fresh air to enter at a higher point to maintain a safe environment. Operators and users should be trained to understand the proper installation and operation of carbon dioxide systems and storage containers as well as the properties and hazards of carbon dioxide and first responders should be aware of the potential hazard even after brief exposure.

Potential sources of hazardous concentrations of carbon dioxide, when carbon dioxide systems are indoors or in an enclosed outdoor area, can include but are not limited to:

  • carbon dioxide storage containers that are not properly vented to a well-ventilated area outside of the building not just into walls or ceilings;
  • leaking fittings, connections, piping/tubing/hoses, or storage container plumbing;
  • leaking carbonators, syrup pumps, bag in box racks (i.e., any equipment using carbon dioxide); and
  • leaking beer keg connections and equipment.

Carbon dioxide detectors with alarm systems should be installed in appropriate areas to detect hazardous concentrations of carbon dioxide. Do not depend upon measuring the oxygen content of the air because carbon dioxide can be dangerous even with adequate oxygen for life support. Carbon dioxide beverage systems, carbon dioxide detectors, and ventilation equipment should be properly maintained and periodically inspected per the manufacturers’ recommendations.

Awareness of the potential dangers related to carbon dioxide gas and inspection of these systems is the key to ensuring the safety of emergency responders, Missouri workers and the general public.