Inhaling carbon monoxide can be life-threatening. When a person gets sick or dies from inhaling it, it is called carbon monoxide poisoning. Learn more about carbon monoxide poisoning and what makes it so dangerous today.
What Is Carbon Monoxide?
Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless and tasteless gas or liquid. Incomplete oxidation in the carbon combustion process creates it. It produces a violet flame when burning, and it is somewhat water-soluble. Common sources of carbon monoxide include leaky chimneys and furnaces, gas stoves, unvented kerosene space heaters, exhaust from vehicles, and poorly adjusted or poorly maintained combustion devices like boilers and furnaces.
Why Does Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Happen?
When a person breathes in carbon monoxide fumes, the body loses its ability to properly utilize oxygen, affecting the brain, heart, and other organs. People with lung disease, heart disease, and other health issues face an increased risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. The same is true for older adults, pregnant women, and children.
Carbon monoxide exposure occurs more frequently during the winter when people use unvented space heaters in their homes. An unvented space heater utilizes combustible fuel inside the home for heating, releasing gases into the room instead of outside. Improper installation of the space heater can result in the release of carbon monoxide and other toxic fumes, depleting the oxygen in the room. While newer space heaters are designed with sensors to deactivate if the oxygen level in the room drops to a certain point, this is not the case with older models.
Experiencing Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
The medical community often describes carbon monoxide poisoning as a chameleon due to its symptoms that can mimic other conditions. There isn’t a single symptom that immediately signals carbon monoxide poisoning, making it challenging to identify. However, certain key changes or symptoms may indicate its presence.
Carbon monoxide impacts the body’s ability to transport and utilize oxygen, particularly affecting the brain. It binds to hemoglobin, creating carboxyhemoglobin and causing symptoms like those affecting the brain and leading to hypoxia. Early symptoms include dizziness, nausea, and fatigue. Identifying carbon monoxide poisoning is more likely if multiple people in the home experience the same symptoms. However, these symptoms are often dismissed as common issues like fatigue or infections.
As symptoms progress, they become more serious but remain ambiguous enough that people may not link them to carbon monoxide exposure. These advanced symptoms include chest pain, vomiting, double vision, shortness of breath, loss of cognitive skills, and blurry vision. The timeline for symptom progression varies, influenced by exposure time and carbon monoxide concentration in the air.
For instance, clean air has 0.1 ppm of carbon monoxide, while 15-20 ppm can decrease excess capacity. At 50 ppm, carbon monoxide becomes toxic, causing symptoms like dizziness and nausea within two hours at 100 ppm. Concentrations of 400 ppm lead to frontal headaches and brain damage within five hours. At 800 ppm, there’s a risk of death within three hours. At 12,800 ppm, unconsciousness occurs within minutes, leading to death in less than three minutes.
Rare symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include very deep flushed skin, indicating high levels of fatal carboxyhemoglobin in the blood.
What Are the Long-Term Effects of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning?
When a person has chronic carbon monoxide poisoning, its usually where they have been exposed to carbon monoxide for extended amounts of time at low concentrations. This can leave a person with persistent headaches that dont go away. They have memory problems, lightheadedness, sleep disorders, vomiting, pain, and diarrhea. Each time they are exposed to carbon monoxide, they will develop one or several symptoms.
Again, because of the nonspecific nature of the symptoms, carbon monoxide poisoning is often ruled out, and its often mistaken for a stomach bug or the flu. Most people have some form of cognitive decline after CO poisoning. It could be something subtle that sufferers dont notice, or it could be something more advanced like dementia. Physical disorders could include balance issues, shuffling gait, urinary and fecal incontinence, and other severe physical impairments. Emotional and behavior disturbances, while less common, have been linked to CO poisoning.
Should You Install a Carbon Monoxide Detector?
Carbon monoxide detectors have saved lives. They offer an early warning that the home or building has a carbon monoxide buildup. An alarm lets everyone in the building know they must evacuate before it is too late. If a carbon monoxide detector indicates that there are increased levels of carbon monoxide in the home, you want to open all windows and doorways immediately, allowing fresh air to circulate to the building or home, leave the building, and get in contact with emergency services.
For a carbon monoxide detector to be the most efficient, it must be replaced once its reached its recommended age. The manual or the HVAC technician who installed it can help you determine when the device should be replaced.
Do Carbon Monoxide Detectors Need to Be Maintained?
Yes. Although carbon monoxide detectors have a lifecycle of between three to five years, like all other appliances, they can be unpredictable and break down early. Maintenance helps ensure that your carbon monoxide detector is working as it should. During maintenance, your HVAC technician can test your detector, replace batteries, ensure that your detectors are installed in the right location, clean debris, and help you see why the detector may be giving false alarms and prevent those from happening in the future.
Preventing Carbon Monoxide Leaks Through Furnace Maintenance
One major source of carbon monoxide poisoning in the home results from inadequately maintained furnaces. The heat exchanger walls contain carbon monoxide in the furnace. If everything functions correctly, the gas from the heat exchanger is pushed out through the furnace flue, venting away from the home.
However, there are several reasons why a furnace may develop a crack in the heat exchanger or flue. In such cases, carbon monoxide starts to leak into the home’s air, posing a serious health hazard for the occupants.
The most effective preventive measure is to undergo annual maintenance on the furnace. During this annual maintenance, an HVAC technician will perform various preventative measures, including thoroughly cleaning and inspecting the unit. This process helps identify and address any potential issues with the furnace.
As part of the scheduled maintenance, the HVAC technician can change your air filters to ensure the furnace can breathe freely. They will inspect the original installation to verify that components such as the blower motor, ductwork, and flue are properly installed. This ensures confidence that the furnace is not allowing deadly carbon monoxide gas to seep into the home.
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