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Carbon Monoxide Poisoning



As colorless as the air, this sudden killer is responsible for 700 fatalities a year in the United States. Carbon Monoxide (CO) is not to be confused with Carbon Dioxide (CO2), which is responsible for the bubbles in your gingerale. CO is a product of inefficiently burnt fuels that are created by an appliance or heating unit in the home. One in five deaths by CO poisoning can be attributed to a malfunctioning appliance, either due to poor maintenance or a design fault. Carbon Monoxide is the inevitable by-product of the burning of all carbon based fuels, and the less of it that is in the air, the better.

CO is deadly because it is not detectable to the five human senses. To confuse matters more, symptoms of CO poisoning mimic common every day ailments such as migraine headaches or the flu. This insidious threat to home safety is responsible for 113,333 emergency situations in the U.S. every year. There are two basic types of carbon monoxide poisoning, ACUTE and CHRONIC.


ACUTE CO poisoning is rarely detected until its victims become quite ill. In this kind of scenario, a heating unit or appliance breaks down and emits lethal levels of gas in a short time. The severity of the symptoms varies depending on the concentration of the gas in the air. The chart below gives you an idea of when to suspect that CO is the culprit behind your discomfort.

The numbers below represent the concentration or amount of CO that is in the air as per parts per million (ppm) followed by its physical effects:

* At 35 ppm - No adverse effects until after about 8 hours of exposure
* At 200 ppm - Mild headache after 2-3 hours of exposure
* At 800 ppm - Headache, nausea and dizziness at 45 minutes. Physical collapse at 2 hours.
* At 1000 ppm - Loss of consciousness at 1 hour.
* At 3200 ppm - Dizziness and nausea at10 minutes. Loss of consciousness occurs at 30 minutes.
* 12,800 ppm - Collapse, loss of consciousness and death after 1-3 minutes of exposure.

CHRONIC CO poisoning can be difficult to diagnose as the symptoms of long-term exposure mimic common disorder such as the flu. Long-term exposure to smaller amounts of CO has been associated with diabetes and brain damage. There is a middle range of slightly higher exposure over a shorter period of time. In this scenario, a gas heater breaks down and an entire family can suffer nausea and dizziness over a period of two weeks indicating that it might be from CO leak.

Persistent symptoms of CO poisoning include

* Fatigue
* Dizziness
* Nausea
* Vomiting
* Confusion
* Convulsions
* Respiratory problems
* Rapid breathing
* Persistent cough
* Concentration problems
* Hallucinations
* Panic attacks
* Clumsiness
* Severe muscle pains
* Trembling
* Vision problems


CO takes its victims by surprise so poisoning is as hard to predict as any act of fate. However, there are measures you can take to immediately allay the severity of the situation.

* First and foremost, outfit your home and garage with a CO detector. Human beings are unable to smell CO so these devices act as a second nose. These devices resemble a fire alarm and sound off at the first subtle whiff of gas.
* Have a qualified professional regularly check your heating systems, chimneys, furnaces, stoves and cookers for flaws, leaks, efficiency and structural weaknesses.
* Be mindful and observant. For example, if you suspect your furnace is not working, don't use it until it is fixed.
* Be a savvy consumer. Before purchasing a major appliance, check with the manufacturer or a consumer safety groups to see if the brand has a good reputation.


Carbon monoxide poisoning is accidental, and you should prepare for it just as you would any other catastrophe that might strike without warning. As is the case with fires, it is a good idea to make sure that all doors windows and exits are kept free of obstacles. Keeping a window open, while using appliances such as tabletop gas cookers is also a good idea.


If at any time you feel you have been exposed to dangerous carbon monoxide fumes you should remove yourself from the area immediately and seek medical assistance. In this case, it is also advisable to open doors and break windows to let fresh air in and speed evacuation.

Emergency treatment for acute CO poisoning almost always includes keeping the victim warm as well as dosing them with supplemental oxygen via a mask.


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