Carbon Monoxide: a Silent Killer

Carbon monoxide is the number one cause of poisoning death in the United States. In fact, each year approximately 500 people are killed and about 15,000 others are made ill by this deadly gas. It is a colorless, odorless gas produced by the burning of fuel oils like gasoline, propane, oil, natural gas, and kerosene. Even charcoal and wood produce this gas when burned.

There is the potential for carbon monoxide poisoning anywhere fuel is burning. Gas stoves are a common culprit, when not operated correctly or when malfunctioning. Heating systems can leak carbon monoxide into homes and businesses, creating lethal indoor air pollution. Wood stoves must be properly ventilated to prevent carbon monoxide buildup indoors. And vehicles should never idle in a garage, as carbon monoxide is one of the waste gases pumped out of the exhaust system.

When people breathe in carbon monoxide, it passes into the lungs. The heart pumps blood from the right ventricle to the pulmonary arteries to gather oxygen for the blood supply to carry to the rest of the body. But when someone is breathing in carbon monoxide, it is also picked up by the bloodstream and carried to organs and tissues. The molecules are very tiny and are able to plug up the membranes on the cells that would otherwise allow the passage of oxygen that the cells need.

Because the carbon monoxide molecules accumulate all around the cell membrane, they prevent anything else from getting in, rapidly starving the cells from needed oxygen. This process can happen slowly with a lesser leak, while with a more significant exposure death can occur suddenly. Early symptoms include nausea, fatigue, shortness of breath while moving around, headache, dizziness, irritability, confusion, memory problems, impaired coordination, and poor judgment. Unfortunately, if someone ignores these symptoms and does not get to clean air quickly, he or she can slip into unconsciousness and die.

Many people mistake these symptoms for a sudden onset of flu symptoms. And unless there is a carbon monoxide detector installed in the affected area, there may be nothing to alert the individual to the presence of the silent killer. Yet, less than one-third of American homes have carbon monoxide detectors.

Those who are at greatest risk of dying from carbon monoxide poisoning are those over age 65 with pre-existing conditions. Heart disease, respiratory conditions, and anemia make an individual particularly vulnerable. Carbon monoxide gases can be leaking at low levels that can be affecting an individual without any noticeable symptoms. This can eventually lead to long-term damage of body, organ, and brain tissues, leading to neurological damage and other conditions. Personality changes, memory problems, and sensory damage are all common long-term effects.

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