Dealing With the Invisible Killer: Carbon Monoxide
Carbon monoxide (CO) is an invisible odorless gas that can kill you directly or
indirectly. In high concentrations, CO can kill by itself when it enters the bloodstream
and chokes off the oxygen to the heart and brain. However, even a small amount that
wouldn't ordinarily be fatal can make you so drowsy that you fall asleep. Then another
accident you would normally avoid if awake, perhaps while driving a car, could occur.
Sources of Carbon Monoxide
A typical source of dangerous levels of carbon monoxide is a car running in an enclosed
garage, perhaps to "warm up" the engine on a cold morning. In fact, just about
every type of fuel produces CO when it burns or when it is not properly mixed with oxygen:
gasoline, natural gas, charcoal, wood, propane, kerosene and diesel fuel. Vehicles in need
of a tune-up produce more CO than others, but even a new factory-tuned vehicle can produce
dangerous levels of CO if used in an enclosed area. A dirty gas range that burns orange
instead of blue is releasing CO into the air.
The most common source of dangerous CO levels in homes is an improperly maintained
furnace. People overinsulate their homes to the point that the oxygen supply to the
furnace is choked off. Fuel can't burn efficiently, so CO is produced. Moisture on windows
and walls is a common sign of excessive CO indoors. Likewise, burning charcoal inside a
home, a camper, a garage, a tent or any enclosed area produces dangerous levels of CO.
"A good investment in your family's safety is a carbon monoxide monitors, similar to
a smoke detector," says Robert Montgomery, Hospital Safety Officer and director of
Facilities at Lowell General. "The units can be purchased at many hardware or
department stores, and typically cost between $30 to $90, depending on the model and its
features." They should be installed according to the manufacturer's specifications.
Among the recommended places they can be installed are: the furnace, kitchen, and sleeping
Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
You can detect carbon monoxide only by the symptoms it causes. "Suspect carbon
monoxide if you get dizzy or drowsy, develop a headache or feel nauseous with no other
explanation," says Wayne Pasanen, M.D., chief of Emergency Medicine. "Your
vision may also get blurry and your reflexes may slow down. Some people also report a
feeling of tightness across their foreheads."
In fact, CO poisoning is often confused with the flu because the early symptoms are nearly
identical. People go to bed with these symptoms, thinking they'll feel better in the
morning, and they never wake up. "About the only distinguishing symptom of the flu is
a fever," explains Dr. Pasanen. "If you have these symptoms with no fever,
suspect CO poisoning. Another test is to see if you feel better after leaving the house
and being outdoors for a few minutes." If you do feel better, suspect a dangerous CO
concentration in the house.
Treating a Victim of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
"Get possible victims of CO poisoning into the open air or a well-ventilated area as
soon as possible," says Dr. Pasanen. "Conscious victims may be uncooperative,
confused or dazed. If the victim is not breathing, administer rescue breathing." Once
the victim starts breathing, turn the person over onto his or her stomach, keeping the
head turned to allow a free flow of air. In the meantime, have someone dial 9-1-1 for your
local emergency medical service.