Most of us have heard the term carbon monoxide, and know that it’s dangerous. Many of us don’t know much more about it though, and we should, because it can be lethal. Hundreds of people die every year from carbon monoxide poisoning, and thousands get treated at emergency rooms. You can take several steps to prevent a carbon monoxide emergency.
What is it?
Carbon monoxide is a gas, created when something burns. Many fuels like natural gas and propane are supposed to burn completely and only make water vapor and carbon dioxide (CO2) as byproducts, but this isn’t always the case. Just like other gases in the air, carbon monoxide is invisible and has no odor, so the greatest danger is not knowing it’s there until it’s too late.
How is it harmful?
Carbon monoxide poisoning refers to what happens in your body when you inhale the gas. Here’s a little basic physiology:
The human body needs oxygen to survive. There are special proteins on red blood cells, called hemoglobin, that grab oxygen and carry it around to the body. Carbon monoxide likes to attach to hemoglobin too, and when it does the hemoglobin can’t let go of the oxygen it’s also carrying. The oxygen stays stuck to the hemoglobin and doesn’t get released to the body tissues like it’s supposed to. This causes a condition called tissue hypoxia, which literally means too little oxygen. This rapidly leads to tissue injury, and can cause brain injuries, coma, and death. It can kill someone in just a few minutes.
What causes it?
Anytime something is burning, carbon monoxide can be created. Common situations associated with carbon monoxide poisoning include:
- poorly maintained heating systems, especially older floor and wall furnaces
- using a gas oven or stove to heat a home
- running gasoline generators indoors
- running vehicles in the garage
- poorly vented fireplaces and stoves
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include:
- nausea and vomiting
- chest pain
- breathing problems
- loss of consciousness (fainting, passing out)
What do I do?
Any time you suspect that you or someone else has carbon monoxide poisoning, get the victim outside immediately and call 911. The victim needs to be assessed and treated by paramedics, and the fire department needs to check the scene for carbon monoxide and figure out where it is coming from.
How can I prevent it?
Prevention is the key. There are many steps you can take to prevent a carbon monoxide emergency:
- Have your home heating system inspected by a qualified technician, and keep it well maintained.
- Never use the oven or stove to heat your home.
- Always run gas generators outside, downwind, and far away from homes or buildings.
- Never run a car in the garage, even with the garage door open.
- Get your chimney cleaned, and make sure the flue is completely open when making a fire.
- Install carbon monoxide detectors in your home.
You can get carbon monoxide detectors for your home for as little as $20 at the hardware store. Buy at least one and install it in your home near where people sleep, with fresh batteries. Many newer smoke detectors are also carbon monoxide detectors, and you should consider replacing the old smoke detectors in your home with these combination detectors.
I strongly recommend that you watch the video above from the CDC. It is full of information about carbon monoxide emergencies. Share this information with your family and friends, and help them all stay safe from carbon monoxide poisoning.
Written content © Jake Schulke