Tag Archives: oxygen

Conventional Misconceptions: Oxygen is Good

People believe plenty of silly things. It shouldn’t be surprising if you meet someone who believes shaving their body hair and eating it will bring them fortune when playing the stock market. People have believed stranger things. For example, some people believe that inhaling higher concentrations of oxygen improves health, reduces stress, enchants life, brings world peace… you get the picture. A strange belief, to be sure, not to mention the fact that it’s flat-out incorrect. The human body is a delicate thing. It needs food and water to survive, but not too much. And of course, across a shorter time span, it needs oxygen. But not too much!

Seriously, folks. If there is a Melkor in the periodic table, it’s oxygen. It’s a greedy, vermicious little knid. As soon as early life on the juvenile Earth began releasing oxygen as a waste product, the world was doomed. Utterly doomed. Oxygen, dear reader, is Original Sin.

But enough of this blasphemy and Faustian drama! Let’s get to some fun facts:

1) Oxygen is the second most electronegative element in the periodic table (after fluorine). For example, carbonyl groups (oxygen double-bonded to carbon) are effectively polar, and render adjoining alpha hydrogens more acidic than would be in a normal carbon-hydrogen bond. In addition, high levels of reactive oxygen species are totally toxic to cells. As mentioned before, oxygen is a greedy, vermicious knid. Moar electrons, plz!

2) Oxygen is the third most abundant element in the universe, so there’s plenty of greed to go around, so to speak.

3) By mass, oxygen is the most abundant element on Earth (not including the core, about which little is known).

4) Earth’s atmosphere didn’t contain free oxygen until photosynthesis evolved. As soon as photosynthesis cropped up, oxygen wasted no time in rushing off to pollute the Earth with its boundless electrophilia. First order of business: rusting iron and creating banded iron formations. Second order of business: saturating organic matter. Third: infesting the atmosphere, thereby wiping out anaerobic organisms in what is considered the largest scale extinction of life in Earth’s history. Oh yeah, this was then followed by what was probably the longest glaciation in Earth’s history (they don’t call it the oxygenation catastrophe for nothing). And you thought Hitler was evil (apologies, see Godwin’s Law).

5) Nowadays, oxygen comprises 20.9% of Earth’s atmosphere. Reduce that by 5% and you get mass extinction. Increase by 5% and everything catches fire. How’s that for ironic? Oxygen can both create Hell and cause it to freeze over. Evil is a hard word to define, but oxygen really seems like a good synonym.

6) Most aerobic organisms are evolved to manage oxygen in the quantities in which it is present (now we depend on our tyrant). In humans, decreasing oxygen intake can result in hypoxia, which can result in massive cell death, notably in the brain (the hippocampus is one of the most sensitive regions, and portions of it are often the first to go). Oxygen therapy, wherein above-normal doses of oxygen are administered to someone in a hypoxic state, can help rectify hypoxia.

7) Oxygen therapy ceases to be therapy when administered to someone in a non-hypoxic condition. In fact, it can result in hyperoxia (bet you didn’t see that coming), a condition in which excessive oxygen partial pressures toxify numerous bodily tissues. The body simply is not adapted to handle excess oxygen. Plus, there’s only so much hemoglobin in blood, and therefore only so much oxygen that can be fixed per cycle of blood circulation. Ray Kurzweil falls victim to this flawed reasoning by eating more vitamins than his body can absorb. However, excess vitamins generally aren’t harmful. Oxygen is.