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Emergency Services

CARBON MONOXIDE

Why is carbon monoxide so dangerous?
The great danger of carbon monoxide is its attraction to hemoglobin in the bloodstream. When breathed in, carbon monoxide bonds with the hemoglobin in the blood, displacing the oxygen. When CO is present in the air, it rapidly accumulates in the blood, forming a toxic compound known as carboxyhemoglobin (COHb). Carboxyhemoglobin causes symptoms similar to the flu, such as headaches, fatigue, nausea, dizzy spells, confusion and irritability. As levels of CHOb increase, vomiting, loss of consciousness and eventually brains damage or death can result.

What is carbon monoxide (CO) and why do I need a carbon monoxide detector?
Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless, tasteless and toxic gas produced as a by-product of combustion. Any fuel burning appliance, vehicle, tool or other device has the potential to produce dangerous levels of carbon monoxide gas. Examples of carbon monoxide producing devices commonly in use around the home include:

  • Fuel fired furnaces (non-electric)
  • Gas water heaters
  • Fireplaces and woodstoves
  • Gas stoves
  • Gas dryers
  • Charcoal grills
  • Lawnmowers and other yard equipment
  • Automobiles

The Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) reports that approximately 200 people per year are killed by accidental CO poisoning with an additional 5000 people injured. These deaths and injuries are typically caused by improperly used or malfunctioning equipment aggravated by improvements in building construction that limit the amount of fresh air flowing in to homes and other structures.

While regular maintenance and inspection of gas burning equipment in the home can minimize the potential for exposure to CO gas, the possibility for some type of sudden failure resulting in a potentially life threatening build up of gas always exists.

What are the medical effects of carbon monoxide and how do I recognize them?
Carbon monoxide inhibits the blood’s ability to carry oxygen to body tissues including vital organs such as the heart and brain. CO toxicity levels are usually expressed in airborne concentration levels (PPM) and duration of exposure. Expressed in this way, symptoms of exposure can be stated as follows:

PPM  CO Time  Symptoms
35 PPM 8 hours Maximum exposure allowed by OSHA in the workplace over an eight hour period.
200 PPM 2-3 hours Mild headache, fatigue, nausea and dizziness.
400 PPM 1-2 hours Serious headache—other symptoms intensify. Life threatening after 3 hours.
800 PPM 45 minutes Dizziness, nausea and convulsions. Unconscious within 2 hours. Death within 2-3 hours.
1600 PPM 20 minutes Headache, dizziness and nausea. Death within 1 hour.
3200 PPM 5-10 minutes Headache, dizziness and nausea. Death within 1 hour.
6400 PPM 1-2 minutes Headache, dizziness and nausea. Death within 25-30 minutes.
12,800 PPM 1-3 minutes Death

As can be seen from the above information, the symptoms vary widely based on exposure level, duration and the general health and age on an individual. Also note the one recurrent theme that is most significant in the recognition of carbon monoxide poisoning- headache, dizziness and nausea. These “flu like” symptoms are often mistaken for a real case of the flu and can result in delayed or misdiagnosed treatment. When experienced in conjunction with the sounding of a carbon monoxide alarm these symptoms are the best indicator that a potentially serious buildup of carbon monoxide exists. This comment will be returned to later.

How many carbon monoxide detectors should I have and where should I place them?
The Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends a detector on each floor of a residence. At a minimum, a single detector should be placed on each sleeping floor with an additional detector in the area of any major gas burning appliances such as a furnace or water heater. Installation in these areas ensures rapid detection of any potentially malfunctioning appliances and the ability to hear the alarm from all sleeping areas. In general, carbon monoxide detectors should be placed high (near the ceiling) for most effective use. Detectors should also not be placed within five feet of gas fueled appliances or near cooking or bathing areas. Consult the manufacturers installation instructions for proper placement of a detector within a given area.

What should I do when my carbon monoxide detector goes off?
First and foremost, stay calm. As mentioned previously most situations resulting in activation of a carbon monoxide detector are not life threatening and do not require calling 911. To determine the need to call 911, ask the following question of everyone in the household:

“Does anyone feel ill? Is anyone experiencing the ‘flu-like’ symptoms of headache, nausea or dizziness?”

If the answer to the above by anyone in the household is true, evacuate the household to a safe location and have someone call 911. Failure to evacuate immediately may result in prolonged exposure and worsening effects from possible carbon monoxide gas. The best initial treatment for carbon monoxide gas exposure is fresh air.

If the answer to the above by everyone in the household is no, the likelihood of a serious exposure is greatly diminished and one probably does not need to call 911. Instead, turn off any gas burning appliances or equipment, ventilate the area and attempt to reset the alarm. If the alarm will not reset or resounds, call a qualified heating and ventilating service contractor to inspect your system for possible problems. If at any time during this process someone begins to feel ill with the symptoms described above evacuate the household to a safe location and have someone call 911.


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