It’s silent, odorless, colorless, and deadly. Just this past month, carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning resulted in the death of three young women in California and sent eight others to the emergency room.
Though most are aware of the dangers of excess CO inhalation, it is still the leading cause of accidental poisoning deaths in the United States. Around 400 people die each year and more than 20,000 are sent to the emergency room. The majority of these accidents happen during the winter when we’re cloistered indoors and heating our homes with CO-producing devices.
So how do we stay warm this winter without harming our family and ourselves?
Silent but Deadly
Generated from incomplete combustion, CO is a problem both outside and in. Vehicle exhaust can present a health danger when it circulates back into the car; unventilated exhaust was the cause of death for the three young women in California.
Inside, kerosene and gas space heaters, poorly ventilated chimneys and furnaces, gas water heaters, wood stoves, fireplaces, and generators can leak carbon monoxide. The problem is most acute in winter, when heating appliances are most often in use, and normal routes of ventilation (windows, doors) are sealed.
Exhausted from Exhaust
CO inhalation is dangerous because it essentially starves the body of oxygen. Red blood cells pick up the inhaled CO, which binds with hemoglobin to form caboxyhemoglobin. This binding blocks oxygen uptake and leads to cellular and tissue damage and death.
At low and moderate levels of poisoning, symptoms of CO poisoning may mimic those of the flu and other illnesses. These include:
- Shortness of breath
- Impaired vision
At higher levels, symptoms become more severe and may occlude a person from seeking help. They include:
- Muscles Weakness
- Loss of Consciousness
At highest risk for CO poisoning are infants, pregnant women, people with heart disease or anemia, and those with respiratory problems. Fatality is highest among people sixty-five and older.
Prevention: A Breath of Fresh Air
One of the easiest ways to prevent CO from leaking into your home is to have gas, oil, kerosene, or wood burning appliances checked and serviced each year. Of course, we don’t tend to do this unless something isn’t working properly. Since you can’t smell CO, an easy way to ensure you’re not being exposed is to install a detector; these run $20–50 at the hardware store and are plugged into an outlet or battery operated.
Other ways to prevent CO accumulation:
- Don’t use a gas oven/range for heating
- Don’t use a generator inside the home, basement, garage, or other place that doesn’t have ventilation
- Ensure vehicle exhaust system is working properly
- Don’t burn charcoal indoors
- Make sure the flue is open and chimney is clean when having a fire
- Don’t idle the car inside the garage
- Make sure appliances have proper ventilation
If high levels of CO are suspected, fresh air is the best remedy. Poisonings that are more serious require treatment and sometimes hospitalization. And although it’s cold outside, when in doubt, throw the window open!