What is carbon monoxide?
Carbon monoxide (CO) is a gas made from the inefficient burning of carbon-based fuels like coal, wood, oil, propane, and natural gas. Your risk of exposure increases if these fuels are burned in small spaces with improper ventilation such as in garages or basement rooms.
How do I know if I’m exposed?
It’s difficult to tell if you’re being exposed to CO because it has no color or scent and is not irritating to your nose, mouth, or throat. So, it’s impossible to tell that you’re breathing it. CO poisoning is more common in winter months because it’s produced by heaters and can accumulate indoors. CO poisoning is responsible for 40,000 Emergency Department visits and 5,000-6,000 deaths each year, making it one of the most common poisons.
How does CO work?
Hemoglobin is a protein in your blood which is responsible for shuttling oxygen to all the cells in your body. Unfortunately, CO is very easily absorbed through the lungs and binds hemoglobin more readily than oxygen, so the blood carries CO instead of oxygen to the tissues. This results in a state of oxygen deprivation at the cellular level. Mild-to-moderate CO poisoning can cause general symptoms such as headache, nausea, and dizziness. Infants and toddlers, who are unable to vocalize their complaints, may only have fussiness or difficulty feeding. CO poisoning can also occasionally cause a “cherry red” discoloration of the lips and skin. More severe poisoning can cause confusion, heart rhythm problems, fluid buildup in the lungs, or loss of consciousness, followed by death.
How do I prevent CO poisoning?
The best way to avoid CO poisoning is to minimize the chance of it entering your environment in the first place. It is essential to not run fuel-burning heaters, equipment in enclosed spaces such as garages or poorly ventilated rooms.
Some appliances which produce CO are used inside homes routinely, like gas fireplaces and boilers. It’s important to make sure they are installed and operated according to manufacturer instructions or installed and maintained by professionals. It is also essential to never cover the safety mechanisms used to vent fumes. Make sure vents and chimneys are not blocked and that the bottom of natural gas or propane ovens remain uncovered.
To prevent exposure from CO leaks it is very important to install functional CO alarms throughout your living space, including in hallways and near bedrooms. CO alarms should always be compliant with the requirements set forth by the UL 2034 safety standard.
Lastly, if you feel you are being exposed to CO you should leave the area immediately, make sure everyone else has left, and seek fresh air. Call the fire department to report the leak. And if you are experiencing symptoms, call 911.
April 2015. This post was authored by Saad Arain, University of Illinois at Chicago medical student and Susan Buchanan, MD, MPH, Director of the Great Lakes Center for Children’s Environmental Health – Region 5 Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit (PEHSU).