What is carbon monoxide (CO)?
Carbon monoxide (CO) is a highly poisonous gas. It is particularly dangerous because it is colorless, tasteless and odorless. It is produced by the incomplete combustion of carbon-containing fuels. These may be gasoline, natural gas, liquid petroleum, oil, kerosene, wood, charcoal or coal.
The CO may be from an automobile engine, emergency generator, charcoal grill, furnace, space heater, fireplace, oven, clothes dryer or hot water heater. When these appliances are not adequately ventilated or properly maintained, CO can build up and reach dangerous levels. CO poisoning can occur inside any confined area including a home, garage, covered porch, boat, or tent.
CO is a deadly poison because it competes with oxygen for binding sites on hemoglobin, the life-giving molecule in red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. Since CO binds to hemoglobin with an affinity 200-270 times greater than oxygen, the body is quickly starved for oxygen. Each year almost 300 people die in the US from CO exposure, and many more become ill from it.
Healthy people can be poisoned by CO.
How do you know if you have carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning?
An important distinction from the flu is that fever is not present with CO poisoning. Even low levels of CO can cause chest pain and fatigue in people with heart or lung disease. Older people, unborn babies, and infants are most susceptible to the dangerous effects of CO exposure. Very high levels of CO lead to loss of consciousness, seizures and death.
How do you prevent carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning?
CO poisoning is almost always preventable. CO monitors with an audible alarm are inexpensive and readily available for self-installation in the home. The US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has worked with Underwriters Laboratories (UL) to help develop the safety standard (UL 2034) for these indoor detectors/alarms. CO alarms should be installed in every home in the hallways outside of each sleeping area.
Fuel-burning appliances should be well-ventilated and adequately checked and maintained by qualified personnel. Never burn charcoal or operate gasoline-powered tools indoors or in a closed garage. Likewise, cars and lawn mowers should never be left running in a garage that is attached to your home, even if the door is open, or in a closed garage. Gas-powered appliances like clothes dryers or ovens should not be used to heat the home.
The treatment for CO poisoning is oxygen, usually with a facemask. CO levels in the blood are monitored until they return to the safe range. For severe CO poisoning, a pressure chamber may be used to deliver more oxygen.
If you believe you or anyone else is experiencing CO poisoning, you should immediately get fresh air. Open the windows and doors of your home, turn off any fuel-burning appliances, and leave the house. Call emergency services (911 in the US and Canada) and seek medical care immediately. Be sure to say that you think CO poisoning may be causing the problems.
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CDC.gov. Carbon Dioxide Prevention Guidelines.
Previous contributing editor: Barbara K. Hecht, Ph.D.