Beware the silent killer: carbon monoxide

As temperatures drop and our thermostats rise, the risk of carbon monoxide (CO) increases. That was the case on Nov. 15 in nearby Johnston, when an employee of the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy suspected a gas odor just before 6 a.m. and called 911; the building was evacuated in minutes. Still, the leak sent nearly 90 cadets to local hospitals – 60 who felt sick and the rest out of caution.

Don’t let carbon monoxide poisoning send you to the hospital – or worse.

It’s important to know what to do if you suspect CO poisoning. Here is information from UnityPoint Health-Des Moines’ Iowa Methodist Hyperbaric Center that could literally save your life.

What is carbon monoxide, and why is it so dangerous?

CO is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, non-irritating deadly gas – a silent killer. When CO is inhaled, it bonds with hemoglobin, a substance in your red blood cells that carries oxygen to your body, displacing oxygen and forming carboxyhemoglobin (CoHb). That results in a lack of oxygen to the body’s cells and tissues. The brain and heart require large amounts of oxygen and quickly suffer from any oxygen shortage. Physical, non-reversible damage can occur.

The attraction between CO and hemoglobin is approximately 200-250 times greater than the attraction between oxygen and hemoglobin. This makes even small amounts of carbon monoxide dangerous to the body’s organs and tissues. Exposure to low levels of CO has been reported to cause long-term health-related side effects.

What produces carbon monoxide?

CO is produced when fossil fuel burns incompletely because of insufficient oxygen. When fuels such as gasoline, kerosene, natural gas, propane, coal, charcoal or wood are burned without enough oxygen, deadly CO gas is produced. Automobiles and furnaces are major sources of CO poisoning. Many CO incidents involving automobiles are the result of faulty exhaust systems.

Hot water heaters also release low to high levels of CO if not properly maintained. Gas cooking stoves can release low levels of CO and should have an exhaust fan that vents outdoors. If you don’t have an exhaust fan, use caution and crack open a window to allow fresh air into your home.

What are the symptoms of CO poisoning?

Symptoms are similar to the flu and include headache, fatigue, nausea, dizziness, confusion and irritability. Because these symptoms mimic so many illnesses, it is often misdiagnosed. Significant neurological deficits, such as changes in thinking, concentration, recall abilities and short-term memory loss can result from exposure.

When should you suspect CO poisoning?

  • The entire family is sick at the same time, and/or a guest complains of feeling sick.
  • Symptoms appear soon after gas appliances are turned on.
  • Flu-like symptoms decrease while away from the house.
  • Children complain of being more tired in school, having trouble concentrating or experience dropping grades.
  • Short-term memory problems, unexplained headaches, etc.
  • Excess moisture on the interior of windows.

What you should do if you are exposed to CO:

  • Remove all family members and pets from the house immediately, open your windows and allow fresh air into your home.
  • If you have had an exposure to carbon monoxide, health care professionals familiar with the treatment and follow-up of carbon monoxide poisoning should evaluate you.
  • Call your local gas company and get a qualified technician to check for carbon monoxide poisoning. Check all sources. 
  • Do not go back into your home until the CO level is zero and you have purchased a CO detector.
  • Seek medical attention. Oxygen is the only treatment for CO poisoning.

Ways to prevent CO poisoning:

  • Have your furnace checked annually. 
  • Never operate gas heaters, generators or charcoal grills inside your home. 
  • Have gas appliances checked annually.
  • Buy a carbon monoxide detector with a digital display for your home. For a $40-$50 investment, you can rest at night knowing your family will be safe. Place the detector near your bedrooms or where you can hear it.
  • Trust your detector. If it’s alarming, you probably have carbon monoxide in your home.
  • Replace detectors after five years. Check outdates on the back.
  • Do not leave your car running in an attached garage. This allows carbon monoxide to seep into your home causing you to have elevated levels of carbon monoxide four to six hours after you leave. Always back your car out of the garage to warm it up.