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Hazards of Carbon Monoxide

Carbon Monoxide (known by the chemical symbol CO) is a colorless and practically odorless gas. It is produced by the incomplete burning of solid, liquid, and gaseous fuels. We cannot see, smell or taste it and sometimes it is referred to as the “Silent Killer” because it can take your life without warning. Most people die in home fires die at night, while asleep. They don’t wake up because the CO put them into a deeper sleep. They are unable to respond and escape. CO gets picked up by the cells in our blood even easier than the oxygen they are supposed to pick up and the CO is carried to all the vital organs such as the heart and brain. In addition to flu symptoms, it can cause vomiting, loss of consciousness, brain damage and death.

Sources of carbon monoxide

Carbon monoxide is produced when fuels such as gas, oil, coal and wood do not burn fully. Burning charcoal, running cars and the some from cigarettes also produce carbon monoxide gas. Gas, oil, coal and wood are sources of fuel used in many household appliances, including:-

  • Boilers.
  • Gas fires.
  • Central heating systems.
  • Water heaters.
  • Cookers.
  • Open fires.

Symptoms of CO poisoning

Carbon Monoxide can have different effects on people based on its concentration in the air that people breathe. Because you can’t smell, taste, or see it, you cannot tell that CO gas is present. The health effects of CO depend on the level of CO and length of exposure, as well as each individual’s health condition.
The initial symptoms of CO poisoning are similar to the flu (but without fever). They include: -

  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness

Many people with CO poisoning mistake their symptoms for the flu or are misdiagnosed which sometimes results in tragic deaths. Because CO replaces oxygen in the blood, it can make people feel sleepy. Or, if they are asleep, it can prevent people from waking up. At higher concentrations, people can experience impaired vision and coordination, headaches; dizziness, confusion, and nausea. In very high concentrations, CO poisoning can cause death.

Health Hazard of Carbon Monoxide

Acute Health Effects

The following acute (short-term) health effects may occur immediately or shortly after exposure to carbon monoxide:-

  • Skin contact with liquid carbon monoxide can cause frostbite.
  • Inhaling carbon monoxide can cause headache, dizziness lightheadedness and fatigue.
  • Higher exposure to carbon monoxide can cause sleepiness, hallucinations, convulsions, and loss of consciousness.
  • Carbon monoxide can cause personality and memory changes, mental confusion and loss of vision.
  • Extremely high exposure to carbon monoxide can cause to formation of Carboxyhemoglobin and decrease the ability of blood carry oxygen. This can cause a bright red color to the skin and mucous membranes causing trouble breathing, collapse, convulsions, coma and death.

Who is affected most easily by carbon monoxide?

The following people are at highest risk in the workplace. This is because of their greater need for oxygen or an impaired ability of their bodies to provide an adequate supply:

  • Pregnant women
  • The physically active
  • Older workers
  • Heavy smokers
  • Sufferers from respiratory diseases
  • Sufferers from heart disease

Long-term effects are caused by exposure to carbon monoxide

Effects produced by exposure to carbon monoxide are generally reversible. That is, the effects disappear following removal from exposure. In addition, effects produced during one exposure are usually independent of those produced during any other. Massive overexposure can cause permanent damage. Damage is most likely to occur in the nervous system. These effects can include:-

  • Loss of memory
  • Increased irritability
  • Impulsiveness
  • Mood changes
  • Violent behavior
  • Verbal aggression
  • Personality changes
  • Learning disabilities
  • Mental deterioration
  • Instability when walking

What can you do to prevent CO poisoning?

  • Make sure appliances are installed according to manufacturer’s instructions and local building codes. Most appliances should be installed by professionals. A carbon monoxide detector/alarm can provide added protection, but is no substitute for proper use and upkeep of appliances that can produce CO.
  • Have the heating system (including chimneys and vents) inspected and serviced annually. The inspector should also check chimneys and flues for blockages, corrosion, partial and complete disconnections, and loose connections.
  • Only burn charcoal outdoors, never inside a home, garage, vehicle, or tent.
  • Do not use portable fuel-burning camping equipment inside a home, garage, vehicle, or tent.
  • Always make sure to turn off any gas-powered engine (car, truck, motorcycle, ATV, lawn mower, chain saw, or generator) inside an attached garage or basement. Even if the garage door is open, you can still be affected or killed by CO. If you must test the engine, take it outdoors before starting it.
  • Always refer to the owner’s manual when performing minor adjustments or servicing fuel-burning appliances, and get help from a professional if you are unsure how to service such equipment
  • Do not use gas appliances such as ranges, ovens, or clothes dryers for heating your home.
  • If you use a fuel-burning appliance for approved indoor uses (such as a heater), make sure it is vented to the outdoors following manufacturer’s instructions. Do not use an unvented fuel-burning appliance in any room with closed doors or windows or in any room where people are sleeping.
  • Install and use an exhaust fan vented to outdoors over gas stoves.
  • Open flues when fireplaces are in use.
  • Choose properly sized wood-burning stoves that are certified to meet EPA emission standards. Make certain that doors on all wood-burning stoves fit tightly.
  • Have a trained professional inspect, clean, and tune-up central heating system (furnaces, flues, and chimneys) annually. Repair any leaks promptly.