February 8, 2006
Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
What? Where? When? Why? How?
Jonathan Wood, MD
The “silent killer” - - this aphorism is used by many to describe carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning. It is estimated by the Journal of the American Medical Association that 1500 Americans die each year from CO poisoning and an additional 10,000+ are injured from it. Anyone who is exposed to the byproduct of burning fossil fuels is at risk for this dangerous illness…and that’s all of us! The good news? It’s preventable!
Read below for more information on this important health issue…
What is Carbon Monoxide?
Carbon Monoxide (CO) is a deadly substance. You cannot see, smell or taste carbon monoxide. Hundreds of people die every year from carbon monoxide poisoning. Carbon monoxide is found in your home, at work, in your garage, in your car and on your boat. Knowing the facts about carbon monoxide can lower the number of deadly accidents and save lives.
How can Carbon Monoxide hurt me?
Carbon Monoxide is a poisonous gas. It can cause brain damage, suffocation or death. When you breathe carbon monoxide, good oxygen leaves your bloodstream and carbon monoxide takes its place. High levels of carbon monoxide in your blood can damage your heart, brain and other body systems. This type of exposure, if untreated, can lead to permanent brain damage or death.
Where does Carbon Monoxide come from?
Carbon Monoxide comes from the burning of fuels (gasoline, kerosene, wood, gas, etc.). Appliances that are not working the right way or are not ventilated also produce carbon monoxide.
Some appliances that produce Carbon Monoxide are:
• Unvented kerosene
• Gas space heaters
• Leaking furnaces
• Leaking chimneys
• Wood stoves
• Gas water heaters
• Gas stoves
• Tobacco smoke
• Car or truck exhaust in a closed space, like a garage
What are symptoms of Carbon Monoxide poisoning?
• Severe headache
• Confused about surroundings
• Nausea and/or vomiting
Sometimes, people with these symptoms just think they are getting the flu
How can I lower my risk of Carbon Monoxide exposure?
• Choose appliances that are safe and that work the right way.
• Repair and take care of your appliances as needed.
• Have a qualified technician check all fuel burning appliances, furnaces, venting and chimney systems at least once a year.
• Make sure your home is well ventilated.
• Use your appliances the proper way. Example: never use a gas range or oven to heat your home.
• Place carbon monoxide detectors in you house in the same way that you use smoke detectors (see the section below on evaluating and buying CO detectors)
If your CO detector alarms or if someone is suspected having symptoms of Carbon Monoxide poisoning, you should:
• Open doors and windows for ventilation and leave the house immediately.
• Call 911 - - tell what your symptoms are, how many people are sick and that you suspect carbon monoxide poisoning.
• DO NOT go back in the house without being told it’s safe.
• If you have an elevated CO level, call a qualified technician to repair the source of carbon monoxide.
See the following websites for additional information about this important health topic:
A comprehensive site devoted entirely to carbon monoxide poisoning
A listing of some specific steps individuals can take to lower their risk
Another helpful synopsis of the issues surrounding CO poisoning
MORE INFORMATION ON CARBON MONOXIDE DETECTORS
Types of Carbon Monoxide Detectors
• Metal Oxide Semi-Conductor (MOS) Carbon Monoxide Detectors use heated tin oxide. When CO is present, the heated tin oxide reacts with it and an alarm will sound.
• Biomimetic Carbon Monoxide Detectors use a gel-coated disc. When CO is present, the gel-coated disc darkens, causing an alarm to sound.
• Electrochemical Carbon Monoxide Detectors use a chemical reaction with CO to create an electrical current, which sounds the alarm.
Buying A Carbon Monoxide Detector
Although all tested and approved carbon monoxide detectors are sufficient for detecting carbon monoxide, there are some key elements you should look for when buying one. Some carbon monoxide detectors are more sensitive to CO than others, meaning they will detect lower levels of CO than other, less sensitive carbon monoxide detectors.
What to Look For When Buying A Carbon Monoxide Detector
• Choose a carbon monoxide detector that has been tested and approved.
• If you want a carbon monoxide detector that monitors low levels of CO, look for one that has a memory.
• If you are not diligent about checking and replacing batteries, a battery operated carbon monoxide detector is not right for you. Although they allow for more flexible placement, a plug-in carbon monoxide detector may be best.
After Buying A Carbon Monoxide Detector
• Never plug a CO detector into an outlet that is controlled by a switch.
• Test your CO detector once a week by pushing the device's button.
• Replace your CO detector every 5 years, unless the manufacturer recommends sooner.
• If the alarm sounds, evacuate your home and call 911 for assistance. Leave it to the professionals to determine the source of the CO.
This article is adapted from a publication of the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control and from the “Lung Diseases” section.