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Carbon Monoxide Poisoning: A Deadly Gas

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning: A Deadly Gas

Carbon Monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless gas that results from the incomplete combustion of fuels. Combustion is the process of producing and releasing energy, such as heat and/or light, in the presence of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. Fossil fuels, including natural gas, oil, and coal, contain carbon (C) and hydrogen (H).

During complete combustion, carbon (C) and hydrogen (H) combine with oxygen (O) to produce carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (H2O). Complete combustion needs a plentiful supply of air so that the elements in the fuel react fully with oxygen. For example, when we light a wax candle, we begin the combustion process. The heat from the wick vaporizes wax (a hydrocarbon), which reacts with oxygen in air. Carbon dioxide and water are released and dissipate into the air. Nothing remains once the candle is consumed. Complete, or clean, combustion produces only carbon dioxide and water.

During incomplete combustion, part of the carbon is not completely converted. Water is still produced, but carbon monoxide and carbon (soot) are produced instead of carbon dioxide. The burning of coal and wood are examples of incomplete combustion. While both produce large amounts of heat, both produce soot and carbon monoxide.

Incomplete combustion occurs because of:

·         Insufficient mixing of air and fuel

·         Insufficient air supply to the flame

·         Insufficient time to burn

·         Cooling of the flame temperature before combustion is complete

A properly designed and maintained gas flame produces only small amounts of carbon monoxide, with 400 parts per million (ppm) being the maximum allowed. Most burners produce much less, typically between 0 and 50 ppm. During incomplete combustion, carbon monoxide concentrations may reach levels above 7,000 ppm.

Common sources of CO in our homes include fuel-burning appliances and devices, such as:

·         Clothes dryers

·         Water heaters

·         Furnaces or boilers

·         Fireplaces, both gas and wood burning

·         Gas stoves and ovens

·         Motor vehicles

·         Grills, generators, power tools, lawn equipment

·         Wood stoves

·         Tobacco smoke

Symptoms of CO Poisoning

The most important role of our red blood cells is carry oxygen to every cell in our body, which is essential for all cell functions. When CO is inhaled, it attaches to the red blood cells, in place of oxygen. Because the red blood cells are now carrying CO, they deprive the heart, brain, and other vital organs of oxygen. Large amounts of CO can overcome you in minutes without warning, causing you to lose consciousness and suffocate. Symptoms of CO poisoning include:

·         Mild carbon monoxide poisoning: headache, nausea, dizziness, difficulty concentrating, vomiting, drowsiness, and poor coordination. Most people who develop mild carbon monoxide poisoning recover quickly when moved into fresh air

·         Moderate or severe carbon monoxide poisoning: impaired judgment, confusion, unconsciousness, seizures, chest pain, short of breath, low blood pressure, and coma. Many victims are not able to move themselves and must be rescued

·         Severe carbon monoxide poisoning is often fatal

CO poisoning is a medical emergency. Call 9-1-1 for immediate medical assistance. Emergency Medical Services (EMS) will survey the environment to determine the source of carbon monoxide.

Carbon Monoxide poisoning can be diagnosed with a blood test that measures the level of carbon monoxide in the blood:

·         Normal levels are 1% to 3%

·         Smokers up to 10%

·         Toxic effects appear at 15% to 20%

·         Severe poisoning occurs at 25%

Prevention of CO Poisoning

·         Install a carbon monoxide detector in your home. Check or replace the battery when you change the time on your clocks each spring and fall. Place your detector where it will wake you up if it alarms, such as outside your bedroom. Consider buying a detector with a digital readout, which can tell you the highest level of CO concentration in your home in addition to alarming. Replace your CO detector every five years

·         Have your heating system, water heater, and any other gas, oil, or coal burning appliances serviced by a qualified technician every year

·         Do not use portable, flame-less chemical heaters indoors

·         When you buy gas equipment, buy only equipment carrying the seal of a national testing agency, such as Underwriters’ Laboratories

·         Make sure your gas appliances are vented properly

·         Have your chimney checked or cleaned every year

·         Never patch a vent pipe with tape, gum, or anything else

·         Never use a gas range or oven for heating

·         Never burn charcoal indoors

·         Never use a portable gas camp stove indoors

·         Never use a generator inside your home, basement, or garage, or less than 20 feet from any window, door, or vent

·         When using a generator, use a battery-powered or battery backup CO detector in your home

·         Have a mechanic check the exhaust system of your car or truck every year

·         Never run your car or truck inside a garage that is attached to a house, even with the garage door open. Always open the door to a detached garage to let in fresh air when you run a car or truck inside


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