What is CO, and Why is it so Dangerous?

Michael Hersh, Managing Partner, Kelley | Uustal

Known as the “silent killer,” carbon monoxide is a deadly gas that you cannot see, smell or taste.  It’s also non-irritating, so even at low levels you generally don’t know it’s there.  When inhaled, it displaces oxygen in the blood stream, which starves the brain, heart and other organs of necessary oxygen.  At certain levels, it can quickly cause loss of consciousness, brain damage or even death.  Carbon monoxide is, to say the very least, an extremely dangerous gas.   

Carbon monoxide, though, is all around us. It’s naturally present at very low levels in indoor and outdoor air, and even in our bodies.  It’s produced when various materials including wood, oil, charcoal, natural gas, propane, gasoline and other fuels are burned.  Appliances, generators, fuel-powered tools and equipment, vehicles and boats are all sources of carbon monoxide.   There is therefore no hiding from this dangerous gas. 

Problems arise when these products and materials are not properly ventilated, resulting in toxic levels of CO accumulating in the vicinity of unsuspecting people, who unknowingly inhale the poisonous gas.  Its effect on those exposed depends on the duration and amount of exposure.  People may be harmed not only by short term exposure to high concentrations of CO, but also by longer term exposure to low levels of CO.        

While it is poisonous to all, carbon monoxide is particularly dangerous to unborn babies, children, the elderly and those with chronic heart disease or breathing problems. 

CO poisons the body by starving the body of oxygen.  Blood cells contain hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in the blood stream.  When inhaled, carbon monoxide attaches to hemoglobin, reducing the amount of oxygen being transported throughout the body.  This lack of oxygen results in carbon monoxide poisoning.  Initial symptoms of CO poisoning are flu-like symptoms, including nausea, vomiting, headache, dizziness, shortness of breath, sleepiness, confusion and weakness.  Higher concentrations can quickly lead to loss of consciousness, brain damage or death.    

According to the CDC, every year unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning results in more than 400 deaths, 20,000 emergency room visits and 4,000 hospitalizations within the United States.    

CO poisoning is preventable, through use of CO detectors, proper ventilation, regular maintenance and appropriate design and construction of products and buildings, among other things.  CO presents a known hazard.  Numerous agencies have issued CO exposure limits, including EPA, OSHA, NIOSH, ACGIH and WHO.  Yet, people are all too often exposed to this dangerous gas through the errors of manufacturers, designers, builders and others.  

When CO poisoning occurs, determining why it happened and how it can be prevented in the future is critical, given how dangerous, undetectable and prevalent it is.    

carbon monoxideco poisoning

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