Carbon Monoxide Poisoning: The Silent Killer
Carbon Monoxide, which is also known as CO, is a colourless, odourless, highly poisonous gas. The incomplete combustion of organic fossil fuels including oil, gas, or coal, are common environmental sources of CO, as much as it is a by-product of appliances such as heaters, etc. that burn specific fuels. In normal situations, combustion and its processes (i.e. the addition of oxygen) will result in carbon in the particular fossil fuel to combine with the air’s oxygen to produce Carbon Dioxide (CO2), which we also exhale when we breathe. Problems arise however if there is a lack of air for the combustion process to occur, or if a heating appliance is faulty, which then means Carbon Monoxide (CO) can be produced.
In terms of how it causes the human body so much damage; this happens when CO is inhaled and it combines with the blood, but it prevents the blood from absorbing oxygen. The merging of the blood and the CO, causes a production of Carboxyhaemoglobin, which adversely affects blood vessels in the body, causing them to become faulty. This can lead to swelling in the brain, causing unconsciousness and neurological (nerve) damage and at times death. Detection of Carbon Monoxide by the senses alone is difficult as it is a gas that has no smell, taste, or colour. Although everyone is at risk for CO poisoning, it is particularly dangerous for children because they breathe faster and inhale more CO per pound of body weight. As a result it is often referred to as the “Silent Killer”.
Shockingly, in Ireland between 1 and 2 people (on average) die each year from unintentional CO poisoning in the home.
Carbon Monoxide Symptoms
Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide poisoning can be similar to those caused by other illnesses such as a cold or flu. However, unlike flu, CO poisoning does not cause a high temperature constituting a fever.
- Headaches, chest pains, or muscular weakness
- Sickness, diarrhoea, or stomach pains
- Dizziness when standing up
- Feelings of lethargy
Symptoms tend to appear less severe should one move away from the source of the Carbon Monoxide, but the longer you breathe in deadly gas, the more heightened the symptoms will get. As it progresses, balance, vision and memory are likely to all be impacted and eventually, you may lose consciousness.
Depending on the amount of CO in the air, all the above can happen within two hours. However, cases have arisen where patients have shown symptoms of CO poisoning a number of days or even months after breathing in the gas. Those later symptoms manifest themselves in the form of confusion, memory loss and/or co-ordination problems.
A comprehensive article on CO poisoning can be found on the HSE website here.
Treatment of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
If you or someone else appears to have been in contact with CO, try to get out into fresh air as quickly as possible and away from the site of the gas. Call for emergency medical help if at all possible, indicate what is wrong to a neighbour, or try to phone someone. While mild Carbon Monoxide poisoning does not usually need hospital treatment, it is still important that you seek medical advice. A blood test will confirm the amount of Carboxyhaemoglobin in your blood. A level of 30% indicates severe exposure.
Once you are at the hospital, it is possible that you will be treated as follows:
> You will be given oxygen. If you are able to breathe alone, this will be done by placing an oxygen mask over your nose and mouth. If you are ill enough that you cannot breathe alone, then oxygen will be administered via a ventilator, which will effectively do the breathing for you. Both of these will help oxygen reach your organs and tissues.
> Hyperbaric oxygen therapy might be used. This is a pressurised oxygen chamber in which the air pressure is about two to three times higher than normal. This speeds up the replacement of Carbon Monoxide with oxygen in your blood.
Carbon Monoxide Alarms
Prevention of Carbon Monoxide poisoning is obviously a priority and the best way to do this is to have a well ventilated house with good quality windows opened on a regular basis to allow fresh air to circulate and to install a reliable Carbon Monoxide alarm.
Energy companies in Ireland in conjunction with the National Safety Authority of Ireland have set up a website which has a helpful guide on what to know before choosing your alarm. They have also created a very useful list of Carbon Monoxide alarms that have recently been recalled rendering those alarms unsafe; it would be important to check this should you have an existing alarm.
Other Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Prevention Measures
You can help to reduce your family’s exposure to CO and resultant poisoning, by following the recommendations below.
- Fuel-Burning Appliances
All fuel-burning appliances (e.g. gas water heaters, gas boilers, gas stoves etc.) should be serviced once a year, or as recommended by the manufacturer. Pilot lights can produce CO and should be kept in good working order.
- Fireplaces & Woodstoves
Fireplaces and woodstoves should be checked professionally once a year, or as recommended by the manufacturer. When using these, check to ensure the flue (an opening for expelling gases) is open. Proper use, inspection, and maintenance of vent-free fireplaces are recommended.
- Barbecue Grills
Never use barbecue grills indoors, or in poorly ventilated spaces such as garages, campers, and tents.
- Automobiles/Other Motor Vehicles
Regular inspections and maintenance of the vehicle exhaust system are recommended which your mechanic will likely do when the car gets serviced. Never leave a car running in a garage, or other enclosed space. CO can accumulate even when a garage door is open.
- Generators/Other Fuel-Powered Equipment
Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations when operating generators and other fuel-powered equipment. Never use a generator inside homes, garages, crawlspaces, sheds, or similar areas. Deadly levels of CO can quickly build up in these areas and can linger for hours, even after the generator has shut off.
Make sure to implement regular engine and exhaust system servicing and maintenance. Consider installing a CO alarm in the accommodation area of the boat. Be aware that CO poisoning can mimic symptoms of sea sickness. Never swim under the back deck of the boat as CO builds up near exhaust vents so you could be exposed, should you be in that region of the boat.