Fast Company

CO2 Emissions Now Good For Something: Measuring Your Health

Besides creating climate change, carbon dioxide emissions are an important measure of how healthy we are. New technology could save lives by making it easier for doctors to monitor your CO2.


We've realized that carbon dioxide contributes to global climate change. But levels of this ubiquitous gas also turn out to be a key indicator of human health, a fact that scientists, physicians, and medical technologists are using to transform the approach to the monitoring and treatment of patients. And a Massachusetts company's new CO2 monitor, called a capnograph, allows anesthesiologists, emergency room doctors, and paramedics to measure the amount of CO2 in patient respiration with unprecedented richness and accuracy--a measurement which could save lives.

The significance of CO2 is counter-intuitive: Although oxygen is what the body needs, carbon dioxide levels indicate the presence of grave dysfunction with greater sensitivity. It's CO2 and not oxygen that triggers the desire to breathe. In cardiac arrest or respiratory distress, oxygen levels drop slowly in the body; CO2, levels, however, change immediately. If a patient isn't breathing, a lack of CO2 is the easiest sign to read. The presence of CO2 helps paramedics find the airways of accident victims; tells doctors that the body is correctly metabolizing mechanically supplied air; and gives anesthesiologists a much more sensitive index of a surgical patient's response to anesthetic.

The new capnograph, devised by Oridion Systems, is revolutionary for the graphic display in which it renders CO2 levels: in the form of a familiar wave-form image, combining measurements of the exhaled gas with the rhythm and duration of each breath. Now doctors can have the display of CO2 to read as simply and quickly as they would a heart monitor. The new system is the product of a shift in understanding how the body signals its distress; Oridion's innovation doesn't lie in discovering a new technology--capnography has been around for a long time--but by thinking about well-understood principles in new ways, a powerful way to revolutionize technology. It's reminiscent of the impact of Web 2.0, which arose not so much from new software or transmission technologies as from a change in the way developers and users viewed the Internet. On the web, the result was a burst of fresh air for web-based business; in the case of capnography, that breath saves lives.

[Hat tip: Boston Globe]

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