What Is Carbon Monoxide? Your Guide to a Poisonous Gas

carbon monoxide alarm

Every year, people throughout the United States experience symptoms they assume relate to the flu or food poisoning. They may have chronic nausea or vomiting, debilitating headaches, dizziness, or breathing problems. Surprisingly, this sudden illness could be due to exposure to carbon monoxide, not a virus or bacteria.

What Is Carbon Monoxide?

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a dangerous colorless, odorless gas that comes from incomplete burning or combustion of fuels containing carbon. Fuels that produce carbon monoxide include natural gas, kerosene, charcoal, wood, and gasoline.

Because of the prominence of vehicles with gasoline-powered engines and incinerators, high levels of CO are typical in the outdoor air in and around urban areas. CO emissions can also develop from photochemical reactions in the atmosphere from volatile organic hydrocarbons such as methane and non-methane hydrocarbons from the soil and water.

Carbon monoxide can affect indoor air quality. Many household and recreational appliances produce carbon monoxide.

Why Is Carbon Monoxide Problematic?

By definition, carbon monoxide is a naturally occurring gas, but that does not make it healthy. CO exposure can harm one’s health and contributes to air pollution and ozone problems within the atmosphere.

Carbon monoxide causes significant health problems because the gas’s molecules bind to hemoglobin in the blood. It reduces the ability of red blood cells to carry oxygen to organs throughout the body for healthy functioning. This effect results in carbon monoxide poisoning.

The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are plentiful and resemble many other illnesses. For that reason and the fact that the dangerous gas is odorless and colorless, people often do not realize they have CO poisoning until they receive a formal diagnosis from a physician.

Common effects of short-term CO poisoning include:

  • Headaches
  • Confusion
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Disorientation

Long-term or high-level exposure to carbon monoxide can be more severe. Symptoms include:

  • Sleepiness
  • Vomiting
  • Impaired coordination
  • Anxiety or depression
  • Impaired vision
  • Chest pain

It is possible to lose consciousness or die from breathing carbon monoxide. Over 400 people die annually from CO exposure, while thousands of others seek medical care in an emergency room or doctor’s office.

Populations Most Vulnerable to CO Poisoning

Anyone can become ill from carbon monoxide poisoning. However, people with specific health problems may have immediate or severe reactions to minor carbon monoxide exposure, including those with:

  • Sickle cell anemia or iron-deficiency anemia
  • Chronic heart disease
  • Breathing problems due to asthma or emphysema

Other vulnerable groups include the elderly, newborns, and young children. These populations are at risk of health effects from CO poisoning because they may already have other health problems or an inability to deal with oxygen deprivation. When expectant mothers breathe in too much CO gas, their unborn babies are at risk of developmental issues.

Environmental Effects of Carbon Monoxide

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) research suggests that CO gas has no ecological effects in or near the atmosphere. However, carbon monoxide indirectly contributes to climate change because it participates in the atmospheric chemical reactions that produce ozone.

How Is Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Diagnosed?

Diagnosing carbon monoxide poisoning usually requires an accurate patient history and a blood test. Your doctor may order the test to identify the presence of CO in your blood. However, they may not order the test unless you tell them you suspect recent CO exposure.

How Is Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Treated?

After inhaling air with high CO levels, a person needs prompt medical attention for treatment. Doctors may put the patient on pure oxygen, which flows through a mask covering the nose and mouth. The oxygen helps the blood receive enough oxygen to reach all tissues and organs.

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is another treatment option. It requires a patient to inhale pure oxygen while resting in a chamber with two or three times the air pressure in a standard room. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy speeds up the process of removing the CO molecules from the blood.

Sources of Carbon Monoxide in the Home

People frequently buy gas equipment without realizing the dangerous byproduct it can produce. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, 170 people die every year due to carbon monoxide poisoning from non-auto products.

Some of the most common indoor sources of carbon monoxide poisoning are:

  • Gas ranges
  • Natural gas water heaters
  • Portable generators
  • Wood stoves
  • Gas stoves
  • Gas clothes dryers
  • Portable heaters
  • Gas-powered lawn equipment, power tools, and power washers
  • Fireplaces
  • Kerosene space heaters

Carbon Monoxide and Recreational Activities

Though people can unintentionally raise the CO level of their home’s indoor air, CO poisoning can also occur while camping, hunting, or fishing. Using camp stoves, charcoal grills, and gas-burning generators or lanterns in tents or cabins can be dangerous. CO levels climb quickly in an enclosed space.

Burning charcoal on a charcoal grill indoors is also a bad idea, despite having more room inside your home than inside a tent. The same goes for using an unvented gas refrigerator, portable generator, or heating system indoors. The grill and appliances will quickly reduce fresh air without your knowledge.

Leaving a vehicle running in an enclosed space, like a garage, can also lead to CO poisoning. The CO emissions from the car will quickly fill the room, poisoning anyone inside.

How To Prevent Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the following actions are the best prevention methods against CO poisoning and exposure.

Vent and Maintain Fuel-Burning Appliances

Proper maintenance of all fuel-burning appliances is crucial to avoid carbon monoxide exposure. All equipment should have a vent leading to the outdoors. Only use space heaters in ventilated rooms.

Be sure to install and maintain gas appliances according to local building codes. You should also schedule HVAC inspections before every heating season to ensure that your furnace doesn’t have incomplete combustion.

If your garage is part of your house, never run a vehicle or gas-powered equipment with the garage door closed. Always leave the garage door open.

Know How To Recognized Symptoms of CO Poisoning

Because the signs of carbon monoxide poisoning are similar to other illnesses, it can be tricky to determine if you have exposure to carbon monoxide. However, you can differentiate between CO poisoning and the flu with these clues:

  • Your symptoms decrease or cease when away from home.
  • Indoor pets also seem sick.
  • Your symptoms worsen when using gas-powered appliances.
  • You do not have body aches, fevers, or swollen lymph nodes.

Install and Maintain a Carbon Monoxide Detector in Your Home and Garage

When looking for a proper CO detector for your home, make sure your final selection fits these qualifications to ensure reliability:

  • The CO detector is easily testable and resettable.
  • You can easily install the CO alarm close to bedrooms within your house.
  • The device meets the Underwriters Laboratories, Inc. standards for quality or carries a seal from a national testing agency.
  • The detector has a battery backup to replace the battery when it runs out.

4 Steps To Take When CO Detectors Go Off

If an alarm sounds off in your home, you might assume it is the fire alarm, not the carbon monoxide detector. Before taking action, if possible, check to see which alarm is emitting a warning. If the noise is coming from the CO detector, follow these steps immediately:

  1. Check on household members.
  2. Help anyone experiencing symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning. They will need emergency services to treat their carbon monoxide poisoning, but you can provide immediate assistance by getting them out of the house. Contact the local fire department.
  3. Ventilate the home with fresh air if no one feels the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning to reduce CO exposure. Afterward, turn off all fuel-burning appliances, including the gas range, gas furnace, fuel-burning space heaters, and vehicles in an attached garage.
  4. Contact a qualified technician to assess your gas appliances and chimneys. These professionals will ensure that everything is operating correctly and provide safe, reliable solutions for combustion equipment releasing CO.