What is Carbon Monoxide (CO)?

CO is odorless, colorless, and tasteless.   It is a lethal gas and one that is difficult to detect yet easily produced.  This lethal gas is the by-product of carbon-based fuel combustion. To the average person this means fuel-burning furnaces, ovens, water heaters, clothes dryers, refrigerators, or even fire places are potential threats.  Dcarbon monoxide becomes a problem when it builds up and the concentration rises to more than 50 parts per million for eight hours or more. As the concentration rises, so does the danger.

How does the Silent Killer attack?

At high levels, carbon monoxide is deadly. It combines with hemoglobin -– the red component of blood that transports oxygen to cells and prevents oxygen from being circulated.  It suffocates the victim by displacing oxygen in the blood, and it only takes a very small amount of CO in the air to threaten your life. In fact, air containing one percent CO can kill an individual within 5 minutes.

How can we protect ourselves from CO poisoning? 

Installing a carbon monoxide detector on each level of your home, can alert you to dangerous CO buildup.  Be aware that furnaces and other gas powered appliances must be properly ventilated. Also, don’t use a gas oven as a heater. Modern gas ovens are designed to heat a small compartment, and therefore, they don’t have a stove pipe to exhaust CO. If the oven is used improperly as a spare heater and the door left open for long periods of time, much more fuel is burned than the manufacturer intended. Enough CO may build up to produce a headache–or worse!

How can we protect ourselves from CO in automobiles?

In addition to protecting ourselves from CO poisoning in our homes, we need to be aware of the CO poisoning hazard in our automobiles. Normally CO flows from the engine through the tailpipe to the rear of the car where it is dispersed into the atmosphere. However, if the exhaust system is rusted through, fatal concentrations of CO can escape into the passenger compartment. Additionally, tailpipe cracks and holes behind the muffler present a CO hazard.

The greatest potential for CO poisoning in automobiles occurs when an individual is stranded. Consider the following: CO can enter a car through the heater and through cracks around windows or doors. If there is a wind or breeze blowing the exhaust gases from the vehicle’s tailpipe back towards the front of the vehicle, an envelope of CO forms around the stationary vehicle. It’s even more likely if the vehicle is snowbound. While most people associate CO poisoning with auto heaters and cold weather, the gases can build up in warm weather when using an air conditioner.

Taking a few precautions in your vehicle can minimize your danger of CO poisoning:

  • Periodically check and repair the exhaust system.
  • If stranded, run the engine intermittently (15 minutes of each hour).
  • Ensure the tailpipe is free of obstruction. Check periodically if it is snowing.
  • Make sure the wind is blowing exhaust away from the vehicle. If not, don’t run the engine.

How can we protect ourselves from CO poisoning in hotels?

Despite evidence of efficacy, CO alarms have not been installed widely by the lodging industry, even at properties where guests and employees have been injured by CO.  Recommendations by AH&LA is that until CO alarms are installed in hotels, motels, and resorts, guests should consider carrying a CO alarm when they travel.

Carbon Monoxide symptoms:

  1. Flu-like symptoms
  2. Headaches
  3. Dizziness
  4. Vomiting
  5. Weakness
  6. Tightness of the chest

If you suspect carbon monoxide poisoning:

Seek fresh air and call 911…the key defense against CO poisoning is adequate ventilation whether in the home, automobile, workplace, or even while camping/tent.