Blue Babies

We’re seeing a bit of a trend here: though nitrogen is necessary and natural (in most cases), too much of it tends to mean that there’s not enough oxygen.

When this kind of thing happens in babies, the purplish or bluish color that results is caused “blue baby syndrome” (or, if you’re the technical type, “cyanosis”). Whatever you call it, it means that the level of oxygen in the blood is getting too low.

You really can’t mistake it; the baby is blue at the extremities (called “peripheral cyanosis”, most marked around the fingernails), and the core (called “central cyanosis”, most obvious around the lips). Nor is it exclusive to babies, though newborns suffer from cyanosis to a much greater degree than the general population.

Cyanosis can result from heart defects or heart disease, as well as methemoglobinaemia (a hemoglobin disorder), and respiratory distress syndrome. The most-common cause is the grandly-named “Tetrology of Fallot”, a collection of heart defects that tend to occur together. This is nothing to make light of.

Blue baby syndrome is perhaps the most widely known type of Cyanosis. However, a hereditary genetic condition in which cyanosis is the classic symptom is Methemoglobinemia (or methaemoglobinaemia) characterized by the presence of a higher than normal level of methemoglobin rather than ferrous haemoglobin) in the blood and Raynaud’s phenomenon, a vasospastic disorder causing discoloration of the fingers, toes, and occasionally other areas. Some refer to Primary Raynaud’s disease as “being allergic to coldness.” and is thought to be at least partly hereditary.
But there is “Secondary Raynaud’s,” which can be the result of a number of causes including the use of drugs, eating disorders, connective tissue disorders, and occupational hazards such as exposure to vinyl chloride or mercury.

An interesting example of cyanosis involved a maritime worker who worked on a barge transporting chemicals including vinyl chloride and mercury on the inland waterways of Louisiana. The Jones Act seaman retained several Lafayette maritime attorneys when he was seriously injured when he was struck by a piece of heavy equipment while moving the large drums of chemicals off the barge and onto trucks at the Port of Shreveport-Bossier j at the head of navigation on the Red River, a tributary of the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers. Not only did the maritime worker suffer a sever head and back injury, but he was also exposed to excessive amounts of vinyl chloride and mercury. Doctors who initially diagnosed his head and back injuries also noted the exposure and resulting symptoms of “Secondary Raynaud’s” disease. The doctors’ main concern that the seaman’s vasomotor responses symptoms could worsen over the years since the vascular disease commonly progresses within several years to affect other limbs.

Cyanosis is not a simple condition whether a baby is diagnosed with “blue baby syndrome” or an adult is diagnosed with Raynaud’s phenomenon. At the very least, poor circulation of oxygen in the blood can cause any number of problems…and at worst, heart or lung failure can occur. While medical science has evolved to fix a number of these once-crippling or fatal problems, even completely successful treatments leave patients at a much higher risk for later complications — and all signs seem to indicate that the numbers of “blue babies” are increasing all the time.

The most likely cause of blue babies is a high nitrogen level in the water, typically leached from sources such as agricultural runoff or waste facilities (dumps, landfills, etc.). In nearby areas, water from wells provide the highest risk, especially if the wells are shallow or poorly-constructed. However, any runoff system will make the nitrates available — especially after the first rain of the season, or after major storms.

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