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Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Can be Avoided
TriCare News Article

by Spc. Christopher Stape

WASHINGTON (Army News Service, January 24, 2000) -- It is the proverbial silent killer. It can creep into a home, office or vehicle at any time and take lives before anyone realizes it's present. It is carbon monoxide, also known by its chemical components as CO (carbon and oxygen), and it is deadly. Experts say carbon monoxide is the leading cause of accidental death from poisoning in the United States.

Carbon monoxide is a gas that is usually produced from combustion. The way it works is insidious. Invisible and odorless, it has a strong affinity for hemoglobin. That is the element in blood that carries oxygen molecules from the lungs and drops them off to the body's cells. Hemoglobin has an affinity for carbon monoxide that is about 240 times stronger than oxygen, so as CO is taken into the body from breathing, the hemoglobin would rather transport it throughout the body than carry the life-giving oxygen. Essentially, serious carbon-monoxide poisoning causes oxygen deprivation.

Just why CO is so dangerous stems from the fact that it is so common. The most common sources are motor-vehicle exhausts. Internal-combustion engines generate a lot of carbon monoxide, and that's a problem if exhaust systems are not well maintained. Gasket leaks, holes in the muffler or holes in the pipes can be a real problem if a car is standing still, with its motor running and there is no wind. Danger is especially high in the winter, when a vehicle gets stuck in snow. If the driver runs the car to maintain heat and snow plugs up the exhaust pipe, carbon monoxide can find its way into the car.

The most common sources of CO poisoning in the home are faulty heating and cooking appliances, according to the Wayne State University School of Medicine's Website. Portable propane heaters, charcoal-burning barbecues and portable or non-vented natural gas appliances, furnaces and water heaters are common culprits.

Since carbon monoxide is odorless and silent, it is hard to detect. It is also hard to detect carbon monoxide poisoning -- the only warning may be a headache or tightness around the forehead.

At low levels of exposure, a headache is the most common symptom of CO poisoning. But as exposure levels increase, so do the symptoms' severity. Headaches are soon followed by exhaustion, vomiting, an increase in pulse, loss of consciousness and convulsions that lead to coma and eventually death.

CO is especially bad for fetuses. After exposure to carbon monoxide, the fetus can die even if the mother has no effects at all. Treatment of carbon-monoxide poisoning is tricky. Hemoglobin's affinity for CO makes it difficult to remove carbon monoxide from the blood once it has been introduced. One option is to put the patient into a hyperbaric (pressure) chamber. That forces the carbon monoxide to break its bonds with the hemoglobin and allows the blood to take up oxygen. Since carbon monoxide is so hard to detect, it is important to take measures to prevent exposure. The best way, experts say, is to ensure that the exhaust systems in vehicles and home furnaces are in good shape. Carbon-monoxide detectors are available for homes, and there are similar products that can be used in vehicles.

The Wayne State School of Medicine suggests avoiding the following dangerous situations: The school suggests having furnaces inspected annually to avoid carbon-monoxide poisoning. Also, it pays to maintain a high degree of suspicion of CO poisoning when the symptoms, such as prolonged headache and fatigue, are present.

For more information, visit the Wayne State School of Medicine Website at

Spc. Stape writes for Inside the Turret at Fort Knox, Ky. Lee Vittitow, industrial hygiene program manager at Ireland Army Community Hospital, Fort Knox, Ky., contributed to this story.)

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