Published 1969 — Download PDF of the original newspaper column
Byrd's-Eye View By U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd Carbon Monoxide-A Killer on the Loose It is unlikely that the average person gives much thought to the oxygen in the air he breathes. But the time may be coming when all of us may be forced to pay a great deal of attention to this matter which we have always taken for granted. The internal combustion engine, which has given modern industrial civilization so much of its thrust, has not been an unmixed blessing to the human race it serves. It powers our automobiles, buses, airplanes, railway trains, and trucks-but it does so at an enormous cost in terms of polluting the life-sustaining air that all animals and humans on the planet must breathe to exist. A 65-page report just released by the National Academy of Sciences, which has completed a six months study of air pollution caused by internal combustion exhaust, concludes that carbon monoxide in the air is a growing menace to the nation's health. Carbon monoxide, a highly toxic, colorless, odorless gas, is a product of incomplete combustion. In even small concentrations it can be fatal, combining in the blood stream, as it does, with the hemoglobin to destroy its oxygen- carrying function. Fresh air contains less than one-tenth of one part of carbon monoxide per million. Yet, the streets of Chicago have been found to have levels of 12 parts of carbon monoxide per million - 120 times more than fresh air. The Academy report says that each day automobile traffic alone produces more than 8 million pounds of carbon monoxide in New York City and 20 million pounds in Los Angeles. How much carbon monoxide is now in the air nobody knows. But the Academy report says that if there is a threshold at which body damage may occur from carbon monoxide poisoning, it probably begins at somewhere around 10 parts per million. In less than fatal concentrations, reflexes are slowed, and brain and vital organ damage may result, since the heart has to beat faster in contaminated atmosphere, and the blood flow must be increased, to supply sufficient oxygen to the body's cells. All of the facts about this new menace to health are not yet known. More investigation is needed, quickly, as America's urban air grows more polluted by the day. Carbon monoxide tainting of the air is just one more example of how man has poisoned the environment in which he has to live. Unless effective corrective action is forthcoming, mankind will inevitably have to pay the price of pollution and in terms which we may not yet even fully comprehend.