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Carbon Monoxide Gas

Carbon Monoxide (CO) is an odorless, colorless and toxic gas.

Feel sick? Dizzy? Is it the Flu or Carbon Monoxide Exposure?

Because it is impossible to see, taste or smell, CO can kill you before you are aware it is in your home, car or any other place. At lower levels of exposure, CO causes mild effects that are often mistaken for the flu. These symptoms include headaches, dizziness, disorientation, nausea and fatigue. The effects of CO exposure can vary greatly from person to person depending on age, overall health and the concentration and length of exposure. If you suspect that you may be experiencing Carbon Monoxide exposure, get fresh air immediately.

NOTE: Be certain there is a functioning Carbon Monoxide Detector/Alarm installed near the sleeping areas. If you already have a detector installed, test the CO sensor regularly using real Carbon Monoxide gas and replace the batteries every year. Also it is very important to replace your CO detector before the expiration date printed on the CO detector. If there is no expiration date, then you should just replace he detector to be safe. And please, use the same action with your Smoke Detectors too.

Sources include unvented kerosene and gas space heaters; barbeque grill; leaking chimneys and furnaces; back-drafting from furnaces, gas or oil fired water heaters, wood/pellet stoves and fireplaces; gas stoves; generators and other gasoline powered equipment; automobile exhaust from attached garages; and tobacco smoke.

Carbon monoxide is created when gasoline, natural gas, heating oil or any other fossil fuels burn incompletely. A rule of thumb I use: if it burns, it creates carbon monoxide. Incomplete oxidation during combustion in gas/oil appliances and unvented gas or kerosene heaters may cause high concentrations of CO in indoor air. The most common way for CO gas to find its way into the occupied space is through the central heating system. Worn or poorly adjusted and/or maintained combustion devices (e.g. boilers, furnaces, water heater) can be significant sources as well, especially when the flue is improperly sized, blocked, disconnected or is leaking. Auto, generator, truck, or bus exhaust from attached garages, nearby roads, or parking areas can also be a source. Purchase & install a Carbon Monoxide Detector.

Early Warning Signs of Carbon Monoxide Gas

CO Concentration
in PPM*
35 No obvious symptoms after 8 hours of exposure
200 Mild headache after 2 to 3 hours
400 Headache and nausea after 1 to 2 hours
800 Headache, nausea and dizziness after 45 minutes; collapse after 2 hours
1000 Unconsciousness after 1 hour
1600 Unconsciousness after 30 minutes

* PPM = parts per million

Effects of various CO concentrations at sea level. (At altitude, the effects of CO poisoning and altitude hypoxia are cumulative.)

Do not inhale Carbon MonoxideCarbon monoxide (CO) is toxic to humans because it is attracted to hemoglobin, the main component of red blood cells. Normally, hemoglobin carries oxygen throughout our bodies, releasing it to tissues as needed. When CO gas is present, it replaces the oxygen, and in heavy concentrations, can kill in minutes. In lower concentrations the symptoms mimic the flu or other viruses which are common in cold weather months.

The accompanying tables give you some idea of how various levels of CO concentration in the air and COHb saturation of the blood affect an average person. As you can see, a CO concentration of one tenth of one percent (1,000 parts per million) is enough to render you unconscious in an hour.

OSHA has established the maximum permissible CO level for continuous 8-hour per day exposure in the workplace at 35 parts per million.

In Your Home. Due to its nature, carbon monoxide cannot be detected by the human senses. But sometimes the gas will leave clues to its presence. These are things to look for which might indicate (but not always) that you have excessive concentrations of CO:

  • Stale, stuffy air that never seems to clear.
  • Excessive humidity that condensates on windows.
  • A hot draft venting from the chimney into the home, or no draft at all in the chimney.
  • Soot which accumulates around the outside of a fireplace, chimney, or furnace.
  • A smell of exhaust fumes in the air.
In Your Body. The physical symptoms of CO poisoning are often misdiagnosed as the flu or virus. Some of the symptoms may include:
  • Persistent, severe headaches. Carbon monoxide (CO) is toxic to humans
  • Dizziness or blurred vision.
  • Nausea and/or vomiting.
  • Chronic fatigue and drowsiness.
  • Rapid pulsed or fluttering of the heart, tightness of the chest.
  • Dizziness, fainting, unconsciousness, or dimmed vision.
  • The absence of any of these symptoms once you leave your house.
  • Confusion, anxiety, irritability, disorientation, loss of muscle control.

Infants, small children and persons with cardiovascular problems are more susceptible to the ill effects of carbon monoxide. Even low concentrations of the gas can cause problems for individuals in these categories. Since the physical symptoms of CO poisoning are similar to the flu or virus, it is important to remember that if you do experience some of these symptoms, you may indeed have the flu. But if the conditions persist and nothing seems to help, or your entire family seems to be experiencing the same illnesses, you should seek medical advice immediately and mention your fear of carbon monoxide poisoning.

An Ounce of Prevention . . .Purchase & install a Carbon Monoxide Detector.

Here is list of things you can do to prevent the invisible killer from entering your home.

  • Check all your duct work which is vented to the outside (chimneys, water heaters, etc.) on an annual basis for any signs of blockage (bird nests, large twigs, spider webs, lint etc.)
  • If you have a fireplace or wood-burning stove, have the chimney cleaned & inspected annually.
  • Have your heating system inspected annually, (before the cold weather sets in) to check for proper and safe operation of all parts.
  • If your home is extremely airtight, you may want to contact your local utility company for information regarding adequate ventilation, back-drafting concerns, or to measure the carbon monoxide level in your home.
  • Inspect your vehicle's exhaust system for leaks. Most muffler shops will do this for free.
  • Don't forget your water heater. Make sure that is properly vented and the ductwork does not leak any exhaust gases into the room.
  • Use a Carbon Monoxide Detector. It's an economical and accurate way to warn you if dangerous levels of carbon monoxide are accumulating in your home or RV.

This year, many people will needlessly die from Carbon Monoxide poisoning.

How Carbon Monoxide Kills. Normally, oxygen inhaled into your lungs combines with the hemoglobin in the red cells of your blood to form "oxyhemoglobin." The oxygen is then transported throughout your body by your arteries and capillaries, where it disassociates from the hemoglobin and oxygenates the cells of your tissues and organs (including your brain). The deoxygenated hemoglobin then returns through your veins to your lungs, where it is combines with more oxygen and the cycle repeats.

When carbon monoxide is inhaled, the CO combines with your hemoglobin to form "carboxyhemoglobin" (COHb). The COHb bond is over 200 times stronger than oxygen's bond with your hemoglobin. Thus, the CO effectively puts your hemoglobin "out of commission" and deprives your body of the oxygen it needs to survive. The strong COHb bond explains why even very tiny concentrations of carbon monoxide can poison you slowly over a period of several hours, and why it may take a long, long time for your body to eliminate CO buildups from your bloodstream.

How long? According to an authoritative medical text (Rosen's Emergency Medicine, 3rd Ed., 1992), COHb has a "half-life" of more than five hours for a patient breathing fresh air. In other words, if you crash-land in a hay field with COHb saturation of 40%, your COHb level can be expected to drop to about 20% after five or six hours, to 10% after another five or six hours, and so forth. If you're taken to the emergency room and they put you on oxygen therapy, the half-life drops to 1.5 to 2.5 hours (depending on whether the docs put you on a ventilator or just use a face mask). In extreme cases of CO poisoning, you may be rushed to a large medical center and put into a hyperbaric chamber with pure oxygen at three times normal atmospheric pressure, which reduces the half-life to under a half-hour.

According to the FAA Civil Aeromedical Institute, cigarette smoking will normally produce a COHb saturation of 3% to 10%. Smokers are consequently far more vulnerable to CO poisoning in flight, since they're already in a partially-poisoned state when they first get into the aircraft. Because of COHb's long half-life, smokers would do well to abstain from smoking for 8 to 12 hours prior to flight. (Unfortunately, the more common scenario is that the last cigarette is stubbed out on the tarmac moments before flight, and the next one is lighted seconds after the aircraft comes to a stop at the destination.)

As the CO level in your blood increases, the amount of oxygen transported to your body's cells decreases. It is this oxygen deprivation that makes CO so deadly. Sensitive parts of your body like your nervous system, brain, heart and lungs suffer the most from this lack of oxygen. Symptoms of mild CO poisoning include headache, fatigue, dizziness, vision problems (particularly double vision), nausea, and increased pulse and respiration. Unfortunately, these symptoms are often attributed to flu, indigestion, or the common cold. At higher levels of COHb saturation, you may suffer difficulty in breathing, loss of consciousness, collapse, convulsions, coma, and even death.

Just how sick you'll get from CO exposure varies greatly from person to person, depending on age, overall health, the concentration of CO (measured in parts per million), and the duration of exposure. High concentrations can cause incapacitation within minutes, but low concentrations can still be extremely dangerous if you're exposed for a period of hours. As CO continues to be inhaled, the percentage of COHb gets higher and higher, and you get sicker and sicker. Your eyes are particularly vulnerable to the effects of CO poisoning, and permanent damage can easily occur.

Whereas hypoxia tends to make you turn blue (the medical term is "cyanotic"), CO poisoning has the opposite effect - it makes you turn red. Carboxyhemoglobin is red in color, just as oxyhemoglobin is. (That's why a pulse oximeter is unable to detect CO poisoning.) But, since CO does not disassociate readily from hemoglobin the way O2 does, your venous blood remains red rather than turning the normal bluish color. This morbid little fact is useful mostly to coroners and morticians, however, because by the time CO poisoning has progressed far enough to turn you noticeably red, you're at least comatose if not dead.

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