You might have commonly heard the word “chloroform” associated with people fainting or police investigations. In cinemas, we sometimes see an unfortunate victim forced to smell a cloth moistened by chloroform, leading the victim to fall unconscious suddenly. So, is it advisable to avoid smelling or touching chloroform? Is there any truth in this general notion, and is chloroform actually harmful to you?
All our consciousness depends upon work done by the brain. When we think our brain is at work. Or when we see, or when we feel pain, our brain is working. A person who has breathed a sufficient quantity of chloroform or ether, or who has had a large enough dose of opium or alcohol, cannot feel pain even when the skin is cut, because pain is really felt in the brain, and the brain of such a person is prevented from working.
Chloroform is a chemical compound, having the formula CHCl3. It is found in a liquid state and is very much volatile, meaning that even in average temperatures, it can quickly be evaporated or get absorbed by other materials. Chloroform is almost 40 times sweeter than sugar and is found to have pain-relieving properties, which is why it is used in some toothpaste, mouthwash, and other medicines related to teeth and gums. It is used in the preservation of several specimens in laboratories as it can prevent structural decay. It is also used for industrial purposes, like in the production of pesticides such as chloropicrin, and it is used as a fumigant – a strong gaseous substance used to clear pests within large structures like agricultural fields, storage houses, and city apartments.
Given the almost one and a half-century since its discovery, we have come a long way in learning about chloroform’s chemical and physical properties. It has many side-effects that, if taken in high dosage, can be fatal. Inhaling it in small amounts can cause mild disorientation, causing a person to lose focus. It can produce a lethargic effect on the body, making the brain lose full control of the body. Larger dosages can have several harmful effects. A person may begin to get headaches as well as start to slowly lose sensation in some parts of the body, which leads to difficulty in accomplishing basic tasks such as walking or talking.
If exposed to the skin in large amounts, and for an extended period, it can cause skin sores. It has been proven on multiple occasions that a sufficiently high dose of chloroform can cause death in a patient. Initially, the victim may only start to have trouble breathing. After a few moments, muscle relaxation starts to occur, which, in this case, is a bad thing for the victim’s health. These muscle abnormalities also affect the chest, which can lead to a condition known as arrhythmia. It basically causes your heart to beat very slowly or quickly, as well as in an irregular pattern rather than pumping consistently. This condition can be a very probable cause of death.
However, if administered in about just the right dosage, that is, not so low that a person is disoriented for a while and not so high that it leads to fatal health issues, chloroform can cause sedation and force a state of unconsciousness upon the brain. However, this slipping into a blackout is never as smooth as you might have imagined. It can take anywhere from 2 to 5 minutes for a person to become wholly unconscious when they are constantly exposed to a moderate amount of chloroform. The blackout may last for 1 to 2 hours in some cases.
The question, then, is: How do chloroform work as an anesthetic, and stop the working of the brain? Chloroform is made up of certain chemical molecules. When chloroform is breathed, these molecules pass into the substance of the brain itself. There the chloroform molecules combine with the molecules of the brain, probably with the result that the brain can no longer use up the oxygen in the blood, and so has to stop working. But as soon as the person stops breathing chloroform, their blood that goes to the brain becomes free of it. The chloroform then passes back from their brain into the blood and is breathed away by the lungs, going back the same way it came, and the person becomes conscious again.