The Silent Killer Strikes again: Carbon Monoxide

I was just talking to my mentor about my blog last Wednesday.  I was telling him that I planned to add an article on Carbon Monoxide poisoning; based on an experience I had renting a basement a few years ago. I was debating in my head if that story would be of any interest to anyone, because no one ever talks about carbon monoxide. You hear a whole lot about carbon dioxide and global warming, but nothing about carbon monoxide, so I wondered about its relevance. Then almost as if I was being divinely inspired, news reports came out a few days later about two separate families who had died as a result of carbon dioxide poisoning. So I’m going to talk a little about those reports, my own experience, and then go into detail about carbon dioxide, because recent events prove, just what I had said to my mentor – people just don’t know…they just don’t understand…carbon monoxide can kill  you.

Recent News

On Friday, April 10th of this year an elderly couple and their two tenants were found dead in a house in Queens, New York. There was no burglary or foul play apparent, but a car was found idling in the garage of the home, while the bodies of the recent deceased were found throughout various rooms and floors. The culprit therefore was suspected to be carbon monoxide.  In a similar story, a man and his seven kids were found dead in their home in Maryland. A generator was found out of fuel. Both these cases were determined to be accidental poisonings. You can read further about this  here.

My Story

About four years ago the company I was working for was bought-out, I was  applying for doctoral programs and searching for another job. At the same time my roommates were moving out one by one and I didn’t want to take a long-term lease elsewhere, under such uncertain times. So, reluctantly I agreed to move into a basement apartment-something I said I would never do. There are certain problems that seem to inevitably come with living in a basement: mold and mildew, humidity and condensation, lack of sunlight and ventilation, spiders and other bugs, radon exposure, risk of flooding, and in this case carbon monoxide.

The lady I was renting from, in previous years had converted from oil to gas heating. Unfortunately, she never installed the sleeve required to narrow the width of the chimney. Gas “heats” at a different temperature than oil, the fumes that emit cool faster than those of oil, and therefore require a narrower shaft to prevent premature cooling within the chimney. As we know heat rises, and with it everything trapped with it in the air. So if the air cools too fast , the emissions won’t escape the chimney, but become trapped inside your home. This was what was happening, and as a result it was tripping the safety switch on the boiler, that was installed to automatically turn off the boiler when carbon monoxide and other gases began to build up in the chimney.

So, not only was I being exposed to carbon monoxide, but I had no heat or hot water. The land-lady was asking her son and others to rig the boiler to stay on; unknowingly over-riding the safety switch. One day I came home and the carbon monoxide detector was going off. I immediately checked to see if it was the battery-it was not-the detector was really alarming for the presence of toxic levels of  carbon monoxide. I opened all the windows and the door, put my cat in his carrier, and went outside to phone the land-lady. Her response was nonchalant, she  tried to convince me it was the battery, when that failed she tried to blame it on the proximity to the boiler room. She took the detector and placed it by the stairway, far away from the boiler room -the alarm still went off. The next day I noticed she took the alarm upstairs with her all-together. She failed to understand that carbon monoxide is a toxic gas, that you cannot see, smell, or taste. You can go to sleep one night and never wake up again. Once it builds up in your system going out into fresh air is not enough to reverse its effect.


Carbon Monoxide

Carbon monoxide (CO) is an odorless, colorless, toxic gas. As a component of indoor and outdoor air pollution, carbon monoxide is the leading cause of unintentional death worldwide. It is generated by incomplete combustion of carbon-containing fuels such as : oil, gasoline, coal, and wood.

The primary source of  CO outdoors  is vehicle exhaust, which contributes 75% of all CO emission in the United States. Among other  human sources of CO in the atmosphere are steam boilers, industrial processes, and solid waste disposal. A certain amount is naturally present in ambient air. Indoors, tobacco smoke from cigarettes and hookah pipes is the main source of CO. Gas cooking ranges, space heaters and boilers, coal or wood burning stoves release  CO gas during their use. This is one of the reasons people are warned against using the oven to warm their homes when the heat is not working. Poisonings often peak in the winters months  due to the use of these devices in closed spaces.  Improper use of generators  and charcoal grills being set too close to the house are major causes of unintentional CO intoxication.

CO toxicity

CO out competes oxygen in the body. CO has a 200-250 times greater affinity for the oxygen transporter hemoglobin  in the blood. CO not only binds more strongly to hemoglobin  than oxygen, it also displaces oxygen and prevents it from being able to bind to or release from  hemoglobin . This is the reason why, once it accumulates in your body, that removal to fresh air is not enough to reverse the effects. The result is tissue hypoxia; a lack of oxygen to your organs. The heart and brain are most vulnerable because they require a great amount of oxygen to work. People who have been exposed to low levels of CO over a long period of time (acute) or high levels over a short period of time (chronic) will manifest cardiovascular and neurological symptoms. Since, CO is non-irritating and not perceptible, most people who are acutely exposed will not seek medical attention, and if they do the symptoms might be attributed to other diseases. Consequently, CO is more toxic to individuals who already have cardiovascular disease than healthy persons.

Cardiovascular symptoms

  • hypotension, arrhythmia, ischemia
  • cardiac arrest
  • infarction (heart attack)

Neurological symptoms

  • headache and dizziness
  • impaired judgment/altered mental state
  • confusion
  • loss of consciousness
  • seizure, stroke, coma

SummaryCMVSCD

Carbon monoxide which is toxic at even low levels should not be confused with carbon dioxide which is a byproduct of respiration (breathing).  The only treatment for carbon monoxide poisoning is hyperbaric oxygen, which requires hospitalization and the use of a hyperbaric chamber. The symptoms can be as mild as a headache or as severe as death. Accidental, non-fire related CO exposure has been reported to result in more than 20,000 emergency room admissions, over 2000 hospitalizations, and greater than 6000 deaths each year. Having a carbon monoxide detector in your home is just as, if not more important than having a smoke detector, because you can smell and see smoke but you cannot smell or see or even taste CO (you should have both).  Remember carbon monoxide is also known as the silent killer among gases.

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