Carbon Monoxide, or “CO”, is a colorless, odorless, and tasteless gas that displaces oxygen in the body and leads to poisoning. Since CO has no odor, color, or taste, it cannot be detected by our senses. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimate that non-fire-related CO poisoning accounts for more than 20,000 emergency-room visits and more than 400 deaths each year (NY Times, 2016).
CO is dangerous because it displaces oxygen in the bloodstream, thus starving the brain and vital tissues of the oxygen needed to survive. CO is produced from fumes generated by burning materials (e.g., motor vehicles, power tools and lawn equipment, furnaces, gas stoves and ovens, water heaters, or power generators). The gas builds up indoors and can quickly poison people or animals when inhaled (NY Times 2016).
CO poisoning symptoms are often flu-like, and include headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea, upset stomach, vomiting, and chest pain. Though everyone is at risk for CO poisoning, infants, the elderly, and those with chronic heart conditions or respiratory problems are more likely to get sick (CDC 2015).
Scientists are working to find a potential antidote for CO poisoning by developing a protein that targets CO and binding the gas so it cannot attach itself to red blood cells. Research is in the beginning stages, but scientists and physicians are optimistic. Current treatment consists of pumping 100% oxygen into the body to displace the CO in the red blood cells. However, first responders and physicians must reach the victim and pump oxygen through the body quickly, or severe symptoms and death can occur (NY Times 2016).
What can you do to protect yourself against CO? Use these tips to protect yourself and your family (NY Times, 2016):
- Install a battery-operated CO detector in your home and office. Ensure that the alarm is on so it will awaken you if sleeping.
- Ensure gas and oil appliances are inspected every year.
- Inspect and clean your chimney every year.
- Ensure gas appliances are properly vented.
- Avoid running a motor-vehicle engine while inside an attached garage, even if the door is open.
- Use portable generators outdoors, away from windows, doors, and vents.
- Never use a gas oven for heating and never use charcoal grills or camp stoves indoors.