How Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Happens

Carbon monoxide is an odorless, tasteless gas created in many ways. It is most commonly created as a byproduct of incomplete combustion of any carbon containing material. This includes burning gasoline for fuel or heating a home with natural gas.

Carbon monoxide is called the “silent killer.” This gas can be inhaled by humans or animals without their even realizing it. Once it has been inhaled, carbon monoxide actively competes with oxygen in the lungs to bind with hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is the molecule in red blood cells responsible for carrying oxygen from the lungs to other regions of the body. Once there, it is tasked with removing the existing carbon dioxide.

In the battle between the two gasses, it’s hardly a fair competition: Carbon monoxide is over 200 times more adept at binding with hemoglobin than oxygen is.

Once the carbon monoxide bonds with hemoglobin, oxygen is barred from doing the same. This means certain sections of the body will be denied oxygen. This oxygen deficiency can lead to tissue death and other health ailments such as problems with balance, vision or memory. Severe cases of carbon monoxide poisoning will eventually result in loss of consciousness or even death.

Who is most commonly affected by carbon monoxide poisoning?

Research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveals that 5,149 people died in the United States from non-fire-related carbon monoxide poisoning between 1999 and 2010. That equates to an average of 430 people each year.

Men are more than three times more likely (.22 per 1,000) to die from carbon monoxide poisoning than women (.07 per 1,000). Age also plays a factor, with Americans over the age of 65 posting the highest mortality rates (.42 for males, .018 for females). Meanwhile, people under the age of 25 had the highest survival rates (.08 for males, .04 for females).

One of the easiest ways to protect yourself from carbon monoxide poisoning is to know how it happens. If you know the danger, you’ll be better prepared to respond.

Because carbon monoxide is created by incomplete combustion, anything that generates heat through a burning process has the potential to create carbon monoxide. This includes household appliances such as boilers, central heating systems, cookers, gas fires and water heaters. Even open fires – in the backyard, for example – can be a source of carbon monoxide if they burn coal, gas, oil or wood

Another potential carbon monoxide risk that many people overlook is their chimney. Blocked chimneys and flues prevent carbon monoxide gas from escaping, which forces the carbon monoxide back into the house.

Beyond the home

Cars in closed areas can generate lethal levels of carbon monoxide in as few as 10 minutes. As a result, cars should be started in a well-ventilated area. This is especially important to remember during the winter months when the urge to keep the garage door closed is greater.

Boats are almost always operated in open spaces, but they still pose a carbon monoxide risk. Many larger boats (including house boats) have generators that vent toward the boat’s rear. Occupants seated near the back of the boat or on the swim deck are in the direct path of this ventilation. This means movement on the boat is essential, as the carbon monoxide levels that build up beneath the stern deck can increase high enough to kill someone in seconds.

If you travel at slow speeds or idle in the water, carbon monoxide can build up in enclosed areas such as the boat’s bridge, aft deck, cabin or cockpit. The risks in these areas also increase when the boat is heavily loaded or back drafting at a high bow angle.

Other sources of CO poisoning

Not all risks of carbon monoxide poisoning stem solely from fires or burning of fuel. The fumes emitted from paint removers and other cleaning fluids that contain the chemical methylene chloride can also cause carbon monoxide poisoning. This is because methylene chloride turns into carbon monoxide when it is inhaled.

Finally, smoking cigarettes has been proven to increase a person’s carbon monoxide blood levels. If you need another reason to quit, this is it.

In the next post, learn how to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.

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