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Any home appliance or accessory that burns fuel is a potential source of carbon monoxide. Ordinarily, when a material such as a hydrocarbon burns, it is converted to water and carbon dioxide (CO2). CO2 is generally harmless, although it can pose certain hazards in high enough concentrations. When a combustion device is not operating properly or has a leak in the exhaust line, carbon monoxide (CO) may form and/or accumulate in living spaces.
Examples of such hazards include coal, oil and gas-fired furnaces, space heaters, and water heaters (watch especially for cracks in the chimney liner or flue) as well as wood-burning fireplaces. Non-electric ranges and stoves pose a similar but lesser hazard. Using an internal combustion engine or barbecue grill in a confined space such as a garage, house, or tent can rapidly build CO to dangerous levels and should NEVER be done under any circumstance.
The symptoms of poisoning are similar to influenza (the flu)...and the gas may make you so sleepy that you just don't wake up. According to the MG Industries MSDS for carbon monoxide:
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At 40-60%, anginal pain, incoordination, hallucinations, lethargy, syncope and collapse, and increased respiration and pulse may occur. At 60-80% there may be decreased respiration, blood pressure and pulse, and deepening coma with intermittent convulsions and incontinence of urine and feces. Rarely, there may be a pink or red skin discoloration, but cyanosis or pallor is more common. Other reported signs and symptoms include increased temperature, dilated pupils, perspiration, muscle spasms, hyperreflexia, aching limbs, and retinal hemorrhage or venous engorgement. Above 70-80%, rapid death from respiratory or cardiac arrest usually occurs. Death may also be caused by myocardial or cerebral infarction. Cerebral edema may also occur. In non-fatal cases or when death is not immediate, primary or secondary effects of tissue hypoxia and some atypical reactions may develop.
The toxicity of CO results from its very tight binding to hemoglobin, the species that carries oxygen from your lungs to your bodily tissues. For hemoglobin to work, it can't bind oxygen very tightly (otherwise it couldn't release it at its destination). Unfortunately, CO binds to hemoglobin 200 times more tightly than O2. Carboxyhemoglobin (the molecule formed when CO binds to hemoglobin) does not perform oxygen transport, and it rapidly builds up. In essence, victims are slowly suffocated because their hemoglobin is consumed.
The fatal concentration of CO depends on the length of the exposure, air turnover, exertion etc. Levels above 300 ppm for more than 1-2 hours can lead to death, and exposure to 800 ppm (0.08%) can be fatal after an hour.
To treat victims of CO poisoning, first remove the victim from the CO-contaminated area. Second, give pure oxygen and seek medical assistance. In some cases, hyperbaric oxygen (2 or 3 atm, as might be used in a diving decompression chamber) may be required to force the carboxyhemoglobin back to the hemoglobin form.
Be very careful when using air-line respirators or diving equipment air compressors near exhaust sources which could contaminate the intake air.
Note that carbon monoxide monitors sold for home use do not meet OSHA requirements for monitoring CO in workplace atmospheres or laboratories. Household monitors are meant to save your life, but they will not alarm at low levels that, if you were exposed to them occupationally day in and day out, could harm your health. See the video link below under Further Reading for more information.
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Entry last updated: Monday, August 22, 2016. This page is copyright 2000-2017 by ILPI. Unauthorized duplication or posting on other web sites is expressly prohibited. Send suggestions, comments, and new entry desires (include the URL if applicable) to us by email.
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