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A Portable Guide to Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Carbon Monoxide Overview


Carbon monoxide is a gas comprised of one carbon atom connected to one oxygen atom. It is slightly less dense than normal air. Even though it is produced by various biological processes, they result in relatively minute amounts. In large quantities, however, it is highly toxic, even lethal, to animals and humans. Because it is colorless, odorless, and tasteless, it is virtually impossible to detect with the normal senses. As such, carbon monoxide can represent a silent, deadly threat to homeowners, especially those with furnaces and fireplaces. Over 500 people die every year from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning in the United States, and 40,000 people require some form of medical treatment for symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning. Another 2,000 people commit suicide via carbon monoxide poisoning. Worldwide, carbon monoxide is the most common cause of poison related injuries and death.

Why carbon monoxide is toxic

Carbon monoxide is toxic to any animal that requires oxygen. When the lungs inhale carbon monoxide, it begins to bind to hemoglobin (the protein in red blood cells that transport oxygen throughout the body and give blood its characteristic red color) in the blood stream and prevents oxygen from binding at the same site. As a result, there is reduced oxygen uptake throughout the body, even when a person is breathing air along with the carbon monoxide. With enough exposure, the blood becomes saturated with carbon monoxide and there is little to no oxygen available for the body's tissues. This causes a condition known as hypoxia: tissues and muscles are damaged and eventually death occurs. Essentially, death from carbon monoxide poisoning is similar to suffocation or drowning.

Sources of carbon monoxide poisoning

Carbon monoxide almost always results from the incomplete combustion of various fuels. When there are sufficient oxygen supplies, burnt fuels will normally create carbon dioxide, which is a gas that has two oxygen atoms connected to a carbon atom. With insufficient oxygen levels, however, the carbon has only one oxygen atom to combine with, resulting in carbon monoxide. Enclosed spaces, then, are a classic environment for carbon monoxide poisoning because they limit the amount of oxygen in the area and then offer nowhere for growing carbon monoxide levels to escape to. Common sources of carbon monoxide are any device or household appliance that burns fuel, including:

  • Furnaces
  • Stoves
  • Ovens
  • Fireplaces
  • Water heaters
  • Fuel burning space heaters
  • Generators
  • Charcoal and gas grills
  • Internal-combustion engines

Additionally, any fire that produces open flames can produce carbon monoxide. This is one reason why smoke inhalation is so dangerous in a house fire.

Signs of carbon monoxide poisoning


One of the reasons that carbon monoxide poisoning is so dangerous is that the symptoms are very similar to symptoms of other illnesses and conditions. If a person is inebriated or asleep, he or she may not notice any of the symptoms at all before death occurs. Common symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning can include:

  • Headaches
  • Lightheaded
  • Dizziness or vertigo
  • Difficulty walking
  • Loss of coordination
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Chest pains
  • Shortness of breath
  • Confusion
  • Depression
  • Agitation
  • Irritability
  • Impaired judgment
  • Loss of memory
  • Hallucinations
  • Fainting
  • Seizure

If a person is exposed to carbon monoxide for even a long enough period of time, they will lose consciousness, stop breathing, and it could potentially result in death. Lethal levels of carbon monoxide can build up as quickly as within ten minutes, depending on the size of the room and the source of the carbon monoxide. There are a few different ways to distinguish the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning from the flu and other illnesses:

  • Several members of the household experience the symptoms at the same time. (Note:The flu and other illnesses that are spread by viruses and microbes take much longer to spread from person to person.)
  • Members of the household don't have a fever, cough, or swollen glands.
  • Pets and small children, due to their smaller size, experience symptoms before adults do.
  • Members of the household who spend the most time indoors experience the symptoms worse.
  • When members of the household leave the home, they begin to feel better.
  • Symptoms occur after a fuel-burning appliance (furnace, stove, fireplace, etc) has been turned on.

What to do if experiencing carbon monoxide poisoning symptoms

If a person experiences any of the symptoms associated with carbon monoxide poisoning, the first thing he or she should do is leave the home immediately and bring with them all other members of the household, including pets. If possible, they should open up any windows they can on their way out to let fresh air in and ventilate the house. People should not attempt to locate the source of the carbon monoxide themselves. Use a cell phone or a neighbor's phone to contact 911 for immediate medical help. Emergency responders, including the fire department, are trained and equipped to treat carbon monoxide poisoning and determine the source of the carbon monoxide leak.

If there are members of the household who have lost consciousness, first responders may have to give them CPR on arrival. Members of the household who are conscious are usually treated by administering oxygen via oxygen masks. Increased levels of oxygen eventually displace carbon monoxide in the bloodstream and allow hemoglobin to function properly. In some cases, hyperbaric oxygen (pressurized oxygen) chambers are used to speed up and increase oxygen absorption into the bloodstream. Any other medical complications, including seizure and cardiac arrest, are treated with usual medical protocols. Follow up medical care is advisable to check for delayed signs of neurological damage that can result from hypoxia.

Keys to carbon monoxide poisoning prevention

The best way to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning is due diligence. Any fuel burning appliance or device in the household should be checked regularly for leaks or signs of disrepair. Furnaces, stoves, and hot water heaters should be inspected annually, if possible. Fireplaces should be checked to make sure the flues and chimneys are not blocked and in good working order. Appliances that burn fuel should always have a vent connected to the outside. Never allow a fuel burning device to ventilate indoors. Do not use charcoal or gas grills indoors and do not sleep in a room with a fuel burning space heater on. Do not idle a car, lawn mower, or any other device with an internal combustion engine in an enclosed garage.

Carbon monoxide detectors are also advisable. At a minimum, there should be one per floor of a home, but ideally each room and sleeping area would have one. Make sure that the batteries work in carbon monoxide detectors by replacing them every three to six months and replace the detectors themselves every three to five years. They retail for $20 or less. If you are unsure of how to place or use a carbon monoxide detector, consult your local fire department; they are properly trained to place and install them.

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