Carbon monoxide is a very sneaky killer. The poisonous gas has no odor, no color, no smell, and no taste.
Carbon monoxide is a gas given off by everyday fuel-burning items that we regularly use. Usually, using appliances is not a problem, but if there is improper ventilation in an area where an engine or other devices are burning carbon monoxide-producing fuels, carbon monoxide can build up to dangerous levels. Humans in the area can breathe it in and become poisoned.
Breathing in smoke from a house fire can also cause carbon monoxide poisoning. Because carbon monoxide is odorless, colorless and tasteless, a person can be exposed to it and not even know it.
This situation is especially dangerous for people who are sleeping or intoxicated. Carbon monoxide poisoning can more easily affect unborn babies, children, elderly adults, and persons with heart conditions.
The way carbon monoxide poisons a person is that the carbon monoxide molecule binds to hemoglobin in our blood, preventing the usual binding of oxygen to hemoglobin. Our blood typically carries oxygen to all the cells in our body. Without oxygen, our tissues and organs can become damaged and even die. A fresh and constant supply of oxygen is essential for life.
Every year, 16,000 people are rushed to the emergency room with carbon monoxide poisoning. Over 500 people die from it every year in the U.S. Most deaths from carbon monoxide occur in the winter, especially December and January.
The experts suspect that the numbers of deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning are much higher due to under-reporting. Less than 15 states require the reporting of carbon monoxide deaths, there are no good autopsy tests for carbon monoxide poisoning, and coroners rarely suspect it as a cause of death.
When certain fuels are burned, they will produce carbon monoxide. Common fuels that can produce carbon monoxide when burned include:
Common producers of carbon monoxide include:
- Gas furnaces
- Charcoal grills
- Propane stoves
- Portable generators
The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are common and non-specific. They include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Blurry vision
- Shortness of breath
- Loss of consciousness
Depending on how much carbon monoxide one is exposed to, the results of carbon monoxide poisoning can cause:
- Severe illness
- Irreversible brain damage
- Heart damage that can be life-threatening
- Death of an unborn baby in pregnant mothers
To prevent carbon monoxide poisoning, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests:
- Annually, have a certified technician check your furnace/heating systems, water heaters, and other gas-burning appliances. Your utility company can help you with this.
- Install carbon monoxide detectors on all levels of your home and outside of sleeping areas. Change the batteries with daylight saving time changes, twice per year. If the alarm goes off, leave the area immediately and call 9-1-1.
- Seek immediate medical attention if you suspect your ill-feeling, dizziness or nausea is the result of being near a fuel-burning engine or appliance.
- Never use a generator, a camp stove, charcoal grill, or any other fuel-burning device inside a home.
- Never use fuel-burning devices near a window even if they are running outside.
- Never run an automobile inside a garage, even if the garage door is open.
- Never use solvents inside. Many can produce fumes that can break down into carbon monoxide, especially solvents used to thin and clean varnish and paint. Use only in a well-ventilated area.
- Never burn anything in a fireplace if it is not properly open or vented to the outside.
- Never use a gas oven to heat your home.
The treatment of anyone with carbon monoxide poisoning includes getting into fresh air and getting medical help immediately. At the hospital, treatment may require breathing pure oxygen or even placement into a special pressurized oxygen treatment chamber.
Carbon monoxide poisoning is a life-threatening medical emergency. It is a silent, poisonous killer that is common in the winter or anytime one is around burning fuels. If you think you or someone you’re with may have carbon monoxide poisoning, get into fresh air and seek emergency medical care immediately by calling 9-1-1.
Charles E. Crutchfield III, MD is a board certified dermatologist and Clinical Professor of Dermatology at the University of Minnesota Medical School. He also has a private practice in Eagan, MN. He received his M.D. and Master’s Degree in Molecular Biology and Genomics from the Mayo Clinic. He has been selected as one of the top 10 dermatologists in the United States by Black Enterprise magazine. Dr. Crutchfield was recognized by Minnesota Medicine as one of the 100 Most Influential Healthcare Leaders in Minnesota. He is the team dermatologist for the Minnesota Twins, Vikings, Timberwolves, Wild and Lynx. Dr. Crutchfield is an active member of both the American and National Medical Associations, and president of the Minnesota Association of Black Physicians.