Phosgene (carbonyl dichloride) gas is an indispensable high-production-volume chemical intermediate used worldwide in numerous industrial processes. Published evidence of human exposures due to accidents and warfare (World War I) has been reported; however, these reports often lack specificity because of the uncharacterized exposure intensities of phosgene and/or related irritants. These may include liquid or solid congeners of phosgene, including di- and triphosgene and/or the respiratory tract irritant chlorine which are often collectively reported under the umbrella of phosgene exposure without any appreciation of their differences in causing acute lung injury (ALI). Among these irritants, phosgene gas is somewhat unique because of its poor water solubility. This prevents any appreciable retention of the gas in the upper airways and related trigeminal sensations of irritation. By contrast, in the pulmonary compartment, amphiphilic surfactant might scavenge this lipophilic gas. The interaction of phosgene and the surfactant may affect basic physiological functions controlled by Starling’s and Laplace’s laws, which can be followed by cardiogenic pulmonary edema. The phenotypic manifestations are dependent on the concentration × exposure duration (C × t); the higher the C × t is, the less time that is required for edema to appear. It is hypothesized that this type of edema is caused by cardiovascular and colloid osmotic imbalances to initial neurogenic events but not because of the injury itself. Thus, hemodynamic etiologies appear to cause imbalances in extravasated fluids and solute accumulation in the pulmonary interstitium, which is not drained away by the lymphatic channels of the lung. The most salient associated findings are hemoconcentration and hypoproteinemia. The involved intertwined pathophysiological processes coordinating pulmonary ventilation and cardiopulmonary perfusion under such conditions are complex. Pulmonary arterial catheter measurements on phosgene-exposed dogs provided evidence of ‘cor pulmonale’, a form of acute right heart failure produced by a sudden increase in resistance to blood flow in the pulmonary circulation about 20 hours postexposure. The objective of this review is to critically analyze evidence from experimental inhalation studies in rats and dogs, and evidence from accidental human exposures to better understand the primary and secondary events causing cardiopulmonary dysfunction and an ensuing life-threatening lung edema. Mechanism-based diagnostic and therapeutic approaches are also considered for this form of cardiogenic edema.
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