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Carbon Monoxide (CO) Poisoning

Winter warm-ups mean firing up portable generators, gas stoves, space heaters, water heaters and furnaces. Get cozy and enjoy.

But remember that heating equipment produces carbon monoxide (CO), a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas that is produced by burning gas, coal, natural gas and oil.

About 16,000 Americans per year are treated for CO exposure and over 2,000 of them are kids under 6.

What is carbon monoxide and what are its sources?

  • Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, and non-irritating gas produced by the partial burning of fuels such as gasoline, natural gas, and coal.

Although CO poisonings often occur in poorly ventilated, enclosed spaces, they can also occur out in the open air.

Sources of CO include some of the following:

o   fires

o   automobile exhausts

o   indoor charcoal cooking

o   propane-powered engines

o   portable generators

o   appliances fueled with natural gas, oil, kerosene, or coal (furnaces, gas stoves, space heaters)

o   gasoline-powered tools such as high-pressure washers, concrete cutting saws

o   gasoline-fueled electric generators onboard boats

o   exhaust from a ski boat

How dangerous is CO?  

In 2003, over 16,000 cases of CO exposures were reported to all the U.S. poison control centers.

Over 2,000 of these cases involved children less than 6 years of age.

Over 500 people in the United States accidentally die every year from CO poisoning.

How does CO make people sick?

  • Red blood cells in the body pick up CO much easier than they pick up oxygen.
  • If there is a lot of CO in the air, your red blood cells will be less able to carry oxygen in the blood to all the places in the body that it is needed.
  • Less oxygen delivery can damage tissues in your body and cause serious harm.
  • Infants and children are more at risk for CO poisoning than adolescents and adults because:
  • They require more oxygen AND they breathe faster, thus will breathe in more CO.
  • During pregnancy, the developing fetus appears particularly at risk for CO poisoning.

How sick someone becomes from exposure to CO?

This depends on several factors:

o  The concentration of the CO

o   How long someone is exposed to the CO

o   Where the exposure occurred (i.e. enclosed space or not)

o   The age of the victim

o   The health of the victim

What are the signs and symptoms of CO poisoning?

The most affected parts of the body during exposure to CO include the heart and the brain.

The initial signs and symptoms of CO poisoning are similar to the flu but without fever including:

  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion and difficulty concentrating
  • Weakness
  • Irritability and poor feeding (infants)

If more than one family member or a group of people in a common environment develop some of these symptoms (without fever), especially in the winter months, then CO poisoning should be strongly considered.

If the amount of CO rises in the body, more severe signs and symptoms may develop, including:

  1. Passing out
  2. Breathing fast
  3. Seizures
  4. Coma
  5. Low blood pressure
  6. Possibly death

How can CO poisoning be diagnosed?

  • The best way to confirm CO poisoning is to have a blood test done for a CO level. However, a normal CO level does not rule out exposure to CO.

What should you do if you are experiencing symptoms of CO poisoning?

  • If you think you are experiencing any of the symptoms of CO poisoning, get to fresh air immediately.
  • There may be little time before you experiencesymptoms that could affect your ability to seek safety.

Seek prompt medical attention if you suspect CO poisoning and are feeling dizzy, light-headed, or nauseous. If possible, call your fire department to report your concern.

What is the treatment for CO poisoning?

  • Mild to moderate poisoning is treated with 100% oxygen delivered through a tight-fitting mask.
  • Severe poisoning requires treatment with hyperbaric oxygen which allows for the delivery of 100% oxygen in a special chamber.
  • Hyperbaric oxygen removes CO much quicker from the body than oxygen given outside of the chamber.

How can CO poisoning be prevented?

With proper ventilation, sources of carbon monoxide are much less likely to lead to any health problems.

CO poisoning can be prevented by not exposing your child to sources of carbon monoxide.  The following includes some of the ways CO exposure can be minimized:

  1. Do not burn charcoal inside a home, garage, or tent.
  2. Do not use portable fuel-burning camping equipment inside a home, garage, vehicle, or tent.
  3. Do not leave a car running in an attached garage, even with the garage door open.
  4. Do not use gas appliances such as ranges, ovens, or clothes dryers for heating your home.
  5. Do not operate unvented fuel-burning appliances in any room with closed doors or windows or in any room where people are sleeping.
  6. Do not use gasoline-powered tools and engines indoors. If use is unavoidable, ensure that adequate ventilation is available and whenever possible place engine unit to exhaust outdoors.
  7. Do not service fuel-burning appliances without proper knowledge, skills, and tools.
  8. Make sure appliances are installed according to manufacture’s instructions.
  9. Always refer to the owner’s manual when performing minor adjustments or servicing fuel-burning appliance.
  10. Before turning your fuel-burning appliances back on, make sure a qualified serviceperson checks them for malfunction.
  11. Have the heating system, water heater and any other gas, oil, or coal burning appliances serviced by a qualified technician every year.
  12. carbon monoxide detector can alert you to the presence of CO in your home, before it has a chance to build up to a level that can cause symptoms.
  13. The detector is no substitute for proper use and upkeep of appliances that can produce CO.
  14. Install a CO detector/alarm in the hallway near everyseparate sleeping area of the home.  Make sure thedetector cannot be covered up by furniture or draperies.
  15. Check or replace the battery when you change the time on your clocks each spring and fall.
  16. In order to test a CO detector, consumers should follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
  17. Never ignore an alarming CO detector.  If the detector sounds leave your home immediately and call 911.
  18. CO detectors are also available for boats and recreational vehicles and should be used.