Diseases & Conditions


Carbon monoxide poisoning

A colorless, poisonous gas that is produced by the incomplete combustion of solid, liquid, and gaseous fuels. Nearly 5,000 people in the United States are treated each year in the hospital for carbon monoxide poisoning; this number may be quite low, since many people mistake the symptoms of poisoning for the flu and never get treated. Unborn babies, infants, and children with anemia are especially sensitive to carbon monoxide poisoning. Cause Appliances fueled with gas, oil, kerosene, or wood may produce carbon dioxide. If these appliances are not installed, maintained, and used properly, carbon monoxide may build up to dangerous levels. Common sources include gas cooking ranges, hot water heaters and dryers, wood- or coal-burning stoves and fireplaces, oil burners, and kerosene heaters. Gas water heaters and dryers and oil burners must have stacks that direct the carbon monoxide outside. Wood-burning stoves and fireplaces must have chimneys that vent the gas outside. Unvented kerosene heaters spread carbon monoxide gas indoors; therefore, a window must always be open slightly when a kerosene heater is being used. Carbon monoxide is also found in the exhaust of internal combustion car engines. Symptoms Breathing carbon monoxide causes headaches, dizziness, weakness, sleepiness, nausea and vomiting, confusion, and disorientation. At very high levels, the gas in the blood rises, leaving the child confused and clumsy. Loss of consciousness and death soon follow. Symptoms are particularly dangerous because the effects often are not recognized, since the gas is odorless and some of the symptoms are similar to other common illnesses. Breathing low levels of the chemical can cause fatigue and increase chest pain in people with chronic heart disease and may cause fatal heart attacks. Treatment The child must be removed to fresh air immediately. If the child is not breathing (or is breathing irregularly), artificial respiration must be performed. The child should be kept warm and quiet to prevent shock. Medical personnel can give oxygen (often with 5 percent carbon dioxide) and a doctor should be consulted to check for long-term effects, even if the child appears to have recovered. Prevention Although carbon monoxide cannot be seen or smelled, there are signs that might indicate a problem, such as visible rust or stains on vents and chimneys, appliances that make unusual sounds or smells, or an appliance that keeps shutting off. Dangerous levels of carbon monoxide can be prevented by proper appliance use, maintenance, and installation. A qualified service technician should check a home’s central and room heating appliances each year. The technician should look at the electrical and mechanical components of appliances, such as thermostat controls and automatic safety devices. In addition, • Chimneys and flues should be checked for blockages, corrosion, and loose connections • Individual appliances should be serviced regularly • Kerosene and gas space heaters should be cleaned and inspected • New appliances should be installed and vented properly • The room where an unvented gas or kerosene space heater is used should be well ventilated, and doors leading to another room should be open to ensure proper ventilation • An unvented combustion heater should never be used overnight or in a room where someone is sleeping One of the best ways to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning is to install detectors that meet the requirements of Underwriters Laboratories (UL) standard 2034. Detectors that meet the UL standard measure both high carbon monoxide concentrations over short periods of time, and low concentrations over long periods of time. Detectors sound an alarm before the level of carbon monoxide in a person’s blood becomes dangerous. Since carbon monoxide gases move evenly and fairly quickly throughout the house, a CO detector should be installed on the wall or ceiling in sleeping areas, but outside individual bedrooms.