“Sir, we have invented a device that creates a tasteless odorless invisible gas with the capacity to kill every person in the building while they sleep.”
This may sound like the line from an upcoming James Bond film. In fact, such a gas is the leading cause of accidental death from poisoning in the United States – carbon monoxide. The device can be as simple as a space heater or furnace.
Carbon-monoxide poisoning has been called “the silent killer” by some experts. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, carbon-monoxide poisoning leads to more than 20,000 emergency room visits and 450 deaths each year in the United States.
Carbon monoxide is a common gas produced from the burning of any type of fuel, including gas, oil, kerosene, wood or charcoal. Its toxicity results from its affinity for hemoglobin – the blood protein that carries oxygen. When a person breathes carbon monoxide, it starves the body’s tissues of life-sustaining oxygen.
Initial symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are similar to symptoms of the flu, including nausea, headache, dizziness, weakness, confusion and tiredness. Often, several household members are affected when carbon monoxide fills a home. Significant exposure can lead to death.
People who are impaired by alcohol intoxication or sleeping may not detect the early symptoms. This creates a particular danger to families sleeping in the home at night, if carbon-monoxide is present. Cooler temperatures increase the risk of exposure as stoves, furnaces and space heaters are turned on for warmth.
The risk of carbon-monoxide poisoning results from numerous variables including use of fuel-burning stoves and appliances, problems with ventilation, and non-detectability of the gas. It is possible to control these risks and prevent carbon-monoxide poisoning.
One important preventive measure is the proper installation and regular servicing of fuel-burning appliances. This is necessary to ensure that carbon monoxide-containing exhaust is properly ventilated away from closed living spaces.
Secondly, it is important to recognize that, in the event of power outages, the use of alternate sources of power for heating and cooking may pose a threat from carbon monoxide. Devices such as camp stoves, lanterns, and grills should be used only in a well-ventilated space.
Finally, it is recommended that every home be properly equipped with battery-powered carbon-monoxide detectors. These detectors provide an audible warning in the presence of the gas. Detectors should be located on each level of a home, especially in the vicinity of sleeping areas. Each device has unique installation instructions, which should be followed.
If you already have a carbon-monoxide detector, now is the time to check your battery. This should be done twice yearly when you change the time on your clocks, such as we did Sunday morning.
People experiencing symptoms of carbon-monoxide poisoning should immediately move to a ventilated space (such as outdoors) and should seek immediate medical attention. Significant exposures require high-dose oxygen therapy.
Dr. Matthew A. Clark is a board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics practicing at the Ute Mountain Ute Health Center in Towaoc.