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Carbon Monoxide Safety Guide

Statistics show that 20,000 to 30,000 people in the USA are poisoned annually by accidental ingestion of carbon monoxide. Even more sadly, about 500 people die each year from carbon monoxide exposure, which occurs mainly in each victim’s own home. The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) indicates that carbon monoxide is the number one cause of poisoning deaths in the USA each year.

Statistics also show that older men, aged 65+, comprise the greatest fraction of total unintentional deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning. But everyone is at risk from carbon monoxide poisoning. Of the 2631 deaths tabulated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) between 1999 and 2004, fifty-two were young children aged four or younger.

What is Carbon Monoxide?

Carbon monoxide – a molecule combining a single carbon atom with a single oxygen atom – is indeed a deadly threat. It’s a gas, and so you might ask “What does carbon monoxide smell like?” But much like a shark swimming silently and stealthily in the ocean, carbon monoxide gas emits no odors, has no color, and if it gets on your tongue you won’t taste it. The only way to be effectively safe is to have a functioning and properly placed carbon monoxide detector.

Why is carbon monoxide dangerous? The answer lies in how carbon monoxide interacts with the iron in our own hemoglobin in our blood.

Our blood consists of different proteins. One complex set of proteins make our hemoglobin, which is essential to our body’s ability to transport oxygen to all the cells in our body. Without oxygen, the cells eventually cease functioning, and so do we.

The structure of hemoglobin includes iron atoms, and oxygen binds loosely to them. This binding occurs during respiration, when blood reaches our lungs. Nicely, when oxygen-laden hemoglobin arrives at a cell that is deficient in oxygen, the chemical reaction releases the oxygen for use in the cell.

Whereas oxygen binds loosely to the iron atoms in our hemoglobin, carbon monoxide binds very strongly. You can think of a gentle hug between two friends. That’s hemoglobin (and importantly the iron atoms it comprises) and oxygen. They know when to let go. In contrast, the hug between carbon monoxide and hemoglobin is more like that of a grizzly bear getting its teeth into a salmon. It takes a lot to make that bear let go.

Once carbon monoxide is bound chemically to the iron in our hemoglobin, it becomes impossible for oxygen to bind to that hemoglobin. The result is a deficiency in the oxygen we need to transport to every cell in our body. With enough exposure to carbon monoxide, your blood simply loses the ability to transport oxygen anywhere. The result is ultimately death by suffocation.

Carbon Monoxide Sources

Where does carbon monoxide come from? Carbon monoxide is generated naturally from the burning of wood, charcoal, oil, propane, and natural gas. It occurs as a function of incomplete burning, in which the chemical reaction of the burning spins out carbon monoxide.

Although it’s possible to get carbon monoxide poisoning from these sources, the more common sources that end up being problematic often include an internal combustion engine. Portable generators are a prime example.

Consider this scenario: It’s winter time and the power goes out. You’re cold. You bring out the portable generator and fire it up in your living room. That’s a bad idea. The next thing you know the living room is teaming with carbon monoxide. Portable generators have warnings not to use them indoors for exactly this reason.

Other common sources of carbon monoxide include cars, powered lawn mowers, power washers, and gas-driven leaf blowers. If you see something that burns gasoline or propane or a similar type of fuel, you have to be alert to the danger of possible carbon monoxide poisoning.

Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Since you won’t be able to smell, see, or taste carbon monoxide, it’s important to know the signs of carbon monoxide poisoning so you can detect them in yourself or others. The effects of carbon monoxide depend on the amount of gas that someone has been exposed to.

At low doses, the first symptoms are often dizziness and headache. You may also find yourself tired, out of breath, or nauseous. Those symptoms make sense. Your brain has the biggest requirement for oxygen. Oxygen deprivation will cause your brain to function less efficiently. You’ll feel like you need to breathe in more oxygen even though you’re not exerting yourself physically.

At higher doses, the results are severe and often unrecoverable. Nausea turns to vomiting, but worse you can cascade into other effects, including:

  • Confusion
  • Loss of muscle control and coordinated movement
  • Unconsciousness

Once you start to experience confusion, you’re much more likely to make bad decisions. If you then start to lose muscle control, you have little chance of extricating yourself from the contaminated area. Ultimately if you go unconscious and don’t get removed from the vicinity of the carbon monoxide poisoning, you’ll die.

It doesn’t matter if you are a big person, a small person, or a well-known celebrity. Everyone is at risk from carbon monoxide poisoning. Some famous people have died from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning, including tennis player Vitas Gerulaitis (winner of the Australian Open in 1977) who died at age 40 from a gas-line malfunction, and Randall Wreghitt, producer of the Broadway success “The Miracle Worker.” Wreghitt died at age 55.

Carbon Monoxide Safety

The primary thing you can do to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning is ensure that every appliance and any other powered equipment is operating in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. Modified equipment poses a risk. Novice installation of appliances also poses a risk. Have your appliances and other equipment installed by a professional and have an inspection.

Your inspector will be able to test for carbon monoxide emission directly, and also check visibly for blocked hoses, pipes, loose connections, and anything that might eventually lead to a problem.

It’s worth mentioning again, because it’s so deadly, to never operate a power generator inside a home. Even if you have the windows and doors open, it’s just too easy for carbon monoxide to collect in the area and kill you. Air circulation may not be sufficient to keep you from experiencing toxic levels of carbon monoxide, and there’s really no exception to this rule.

Another safety tip to think about concerns natural gas and propane ovens. You might be inclined to cover the bottom with aluminum foil, perhaps to prevent dripping or trap more heat. This is a carbon monoxide hazard. Blocking the combustion air flow can facilitate the production of carbon monoxide. If you happen to be in a poorly ventilated area, you’ll quickly have a serious problem.

It might sound like unneeded advice, but remember that burning anything (wood, charcoal, etc.) can give off carbon monoxide. So be sure not to light, say, a charcoal fire inside your home or in a tent. Sadly, this has happened. In 1999, a 51-year-old man, his son, and two other children died inside a zipped-up tent as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning from a propane gas stove that was brought inside the tent, presumably for warmth. The rule to follow is this: Nothing that burns goes into a closed space.

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Treatment

The primary treatment for carbon monoxide poisoning is to get out of the vicinity of the source of the carbon monoxide and into a source of fresh air or better yet, pure oxygen. Your next call is 911. Get emergency help straight away.

Paramedics (EMTs) will transport a carbon monoxide victim to the nearest hospital or urgent care facility. They will likely provide pure oxygen through a mask that covers the nose and mouth. In severe cases, once in a care facility, victims of carbon monoxide poisoning may be put on ventilators to force the body to breath in the oxygen.

Subsequently, time in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber may be appropriate. Hyperbaric means that the barometric pressure is significant higher (hence the word, hyper) than normal. This extra pressure – often two or three times normal ambient air pressure – helps force the available oxygen into a victim’s system.

The goal of this therapy is to begin and complete the process of replacing the carbon monoxide in the bloodstream with oxygen. Hyperbaric sessions typically last 90 minutes, but the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning can last for days and weeks.

How to Test for Carbon Monoxide

Since the human senses are insufficient to detect carbon monoxide until it’s too late, it’s important to install and regularly maintain carbon monoxide detectors. Many states and cities require carbon monoxide detectors, but even if it’s not a requirement it’s great advice to follow.

Carbon monoxide detectors are made to an industry standard (UL 2034 from the Underwriters Laboratories). There’s an interesting controversy around this industry standard.

The UL standard requires that carbon monoxide detectors “are not intended to alarm when exposed to long term, low level carbon monoxide exposures….” The thought behind this is that background levels of carbon monoxide, presumably from pollution or properly installed appliances might set off false alarms. If the detector generates too many false alarms, the detector might be either ignored or pulled from the wall. The UL standard triggers specifically on high levels of carbon monoxide.

Manufacturers at CO-EXPERTS and the National Comfort Institute offer a different approach. Their units measure and display the carbon monoxide levels in an area continually. CO-EXPERTS suggest that even low levels of carbon monoxide can be harmful. One study conducted by UCLA showed that even 5 parts per million of carbon monoxide was associated with pregnant women delivering “underweight babies with smaller heads.

You may want to give consideration to determining that there are not persistent low-levels of carbon monoxide in your area of concern, and then ensure you have a carbon monoxide monitor that will alarm for acute, threatening high levels of carbon monoxide.

Where to Place a Carbon Monoxide Detector?

The foundation for where to place a carbon monoxide detector depends on how many detectors you’ll be using. If you only have one detector, it needs to go in your bedroom. It has to be able to wake you up from sleep when there’s a problem. If you have more than one bedroom, you need more than one detector: one for each room.

Placing additional detectors on every level of a multi-level home is important. Remember, however, that appliances may emit a small about of carbon monoxide during normal operation. So the recommendation is to place detectors at least fifteen feet away from heating or cooking appliances or very humid areas, such as a shower or bathroom.

Hot air rises, and so does carbon monoxide when it is floating in hot air. The specific gravity of carbon monoxide is 0.9657, which means it weighs just about the same as normal air. If that normal air is hot and rising, you can expect carbon monoxide to do the same. That means it’s important to consider placing detectors both low and high to give the best chance for the detector to alert you to a problem.

Check Your List Twice

Carbon monoxide is an indiscriminate killer. Be sure you protect yourself and your loved ones to stay safe. Here’s an easy reference checklist to use to help ensure that your home is properly protected from carbon monoxide:

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