Silent and Deadly

            Deaths and poisoning from this silent but deadly hazard increase over the winter months as the air turns cold and snow blankets the landscape.  We shut our insulated doors, close our double glazed windows, use our furnaces, heaters and generators. 

            Carbon Monoxide is a colorless, odorless, tasteless and non-irritating gas formed as a by-product of the incomplete combustion of carbonaceous materials in oxygen, when carbon is in excess.  Carbon monoxide is a commercially import chemical.  It is also formed in many chemical reactions and in the thermal or incomplete decomposition of many organic materials.[i]

            In a report covering 10 years, by the Centers for Disease Control, CO poisoning contributed to an average of 1,091 unintentional deaths and 2,385 suicidal deaths per year in the United States.  In addition, 40,000 emergency room visits were attributed to accident CO poisoning in the U.S.[ii]

            During 2001-2003 the CDC estimates that approximately 480 U.S. residents died from non-fire related carbon monoxide poisoning.    Most deaths occur during the month of December with an annual average of 56 deaths and 2,157 non-fatal exposures.  In January, the average is around 69 deaths and 2,511 non-fatal exposures.[iii]

            Because of its high inherent toxicity and extensive exposure potential, CO has historically been considered not only the most widespread poison known, but also the most significant toxic gas in the workplace.  OSHA has reported that CO is the most common cause of occupational poisoning.[iv]

            Carbon monoxide can be a hazard to us and our families in the home and in the workplace. 

            Occupations involving exposure to carbon monoxide can include personnel that work as police personnel, vehicle operators, taxi drivers, ambulance personnel, bus and truck drivers, mechanics, toll takers, garage attendants to name a few.

            Workers can be exposed when operating gas powered equipment, such as:  pressure washers, concrete cutters, water pumps, air compressors and generators at the worksite and home.  Co is also produced from kerosene space heaters, natural gas cooking units and from propane-powered floor polishers.  Outdoor use of this equipment is not usually hazardous, but in buildings or enclosed spaces, carbon monoxide can quickly build up to dangerous and even deadly amounts. 

            Carbon monoxide poisoning and death have occurred in housing when using indoor fuel-burning cooking and heating appliances that are un-vented, inadequately vented, or improperly functioning due to poor maintenance.

            At low levels of exposure to carbon monoxide can be mistaken for the flu.  People with heart or lung conditions, heavy smokers,  or other health problems can be more sensitive to the effects.  The fetus of a pregnant woman can be adverse affected by carbon monoxide exposures to the mother.  It takes very little carbon monoxide exposure to create problems.

            Some of the symptoms of exposure are:  slight headache, fatigue, shortness of breath, errors in judgment, nausea, dizziness, confusion, collapse and death if exposure is prolonged.

            Massive over exposure can cause permanent damage that is most likely in the nervous system.  These effects can be:  memory loss, increased irritability, impulsiveness, mood changes, violent behavior, verbal aggression, personality changes, learning disabilities, mental deterioration and/or instability when walking.[v]

The following are ways to prevent carbon monoxide exposure at home are:

  • Have heating system, water heater, and any other gas, oil-or coal-burning appliance serviced by a qualified technician every year.
  • Install a batter-operated CO detector in your home – replace battery in the spring and fall
  • If your CO detector sounds, evacuate your home immediately and telephone 911
  • Sep prompt medical attention if you suspect CO poisoning and are feeling dizzy, light-headed, or nauseated.
  • Do not use a generator, charcoal grill, camp stove, or other gasoline-or charcoal-burning device inside your home, basement, or garage or near a window.
  • Do not run a car or truck inside a garage attached to your house, even if you leave the door open
  • Do not burn anything in a stove or fireplace that is not vented
  • Do not heat your house with a gas oven[vi]

The following are ways to prevent carbon monoxide exposure at work:

  • Do not operate internal combustion engines in an enclosed space or indoors
  • Frequent maintenance on propane-powered forklifts to keep emissions low.
  • Use electric floor polishers instead of propane powered floor polishers inside buildings
  • Extreme caution must be taken in confined spaces such as tanks, manholes, vaults or pipes.
  • Internal combustion engines should never be used in a confined space unless there is absolutely no alternative.  In that case, the only protection for workers is supplied air respirators. 
  • Welding in confined spaces where carbon dioxide shielding gas is used can generate enough carbon monoxide to reach dangerous levels.  Shielded gas welding should not be done in confined spaces.
  • When providing ventilation to confined spaces, locate the fresh air intake away from operating internal combustion engines, or move the engines moved away from ventilation fans.[vii]

If you suspect you, a family member or co-worker is being exposed to carbon monoxide take the following corrective actions:

  • Move the affected person to fresh air.  Administer oxygen , if available
  • Contact medical help
  • If the person is not breathing, perform artificial respiration as taught in CPR training until medical help arrives
  • Ventilate the area
  • Investigate the source of Carbon Monoxide and make repairs (Seek advice if needed)[viii]
Resources:
[i] What is Carbon Monoxide, www.carbonmonoxidekills.com
[ii] Carbon Monoxide is most common poisoning in workplace, The Monitor, Dec. 14, 2006.
[iii] Avoiding Carbon Monoxide Poisoning, usgovinfo.about.com
[iv] Carbon Monoxide, et al.
[v] Carbon Monoxide in the Workplace, Industrial Accident Prevention Association, 2006
[vi] Avoiding Carbon Monoxide Poisoning, CDC
[vii] Sources of carbon monoxide in the workplace,  www.lni.wa.gov
[viii] Carbon Monoxide poisoning, www.carbonmonoxidekills.com