Carbon monoxide is produced every time a fossil fuel is burned. This includes fuel in cars or trucks, small engines, stoves, lanterns, grills, fireplaces, gas ranges, or furnaces.
Everyone is exposed to small amounts of carbon monoxide throughout the day. However, inhaling too much of it can cause CO poisoning. The actual poisoning occurs when you breathe in this air – especially if you’re in a place that isn’t well ventilated.
When too much carbon monoxide is in the air you’re breathing, your body replaces the oxygen in your red blood cells with carbon monoxide. This prevents oxygen from reaching your tissues and organs.
Everyone is at risk for CO poisoning. Infants, the elderly, people with chronic heart disease, anemia, or breathing problems are more likely to get sick from CO. People who are sleeping or who have been drinking alcohol can have irreversible brain damage or die from CO poisoning before ever anyone realizes there’s a problem.
Depending on the degree and length of exposure, carbon monoxide poisoning can cause:
Permanent brain damage
Damage to your heart, possibly leading to life-threatening cardiac complications
Fetal death or miscarriage
How To Recognize CO Poisoning
The warning signs of CO poisoning can be subtle, but because it is a life-threatening condition, it is important to be vigilant.
The most common symptoms of CO poisoning include dull headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, chest pain, difficulty breathing, blurred vision, confusion, and loss of consciousness.
If you think you or someone you’re with may have carbon monoxide poisoning, get into fresh air and seek emergency medical care immediately. You should go to the hospital right away if you’ve been exposed to a source of CO, even if you don’t show symptoms of CO poisoning.
If you cannot get to the hospital immediately and someone you are with is unresponsive, not breathing, or not breathing normally, move them away from the source of CO. Call 911 and begin CPR if necessary. Continue CPR until the person begins breathing or emergency help arrives. Even if you are able to resuscitate someone who has been poisoned by CO, please seek emergency medical care. This is not a condition to take lightly, as even minor cases can cause long-term, serious complications including brain damage, heart damage, organ damage, and of course, death.
Note: if you do not know how to perform CPR, please learn as soon as possible so you are prepared in case of an emergency like CO poisoning. The best way to learn is via hands-on instruction, but if you don’t have access to a course, at the very least, buy a guide and study it. In fact, buying a guide to keep on hand is a great idea anyway – even for those who have been trained in CPR.
If you believe YOU have been poisoned by CO, go outdoors immediately and call 911. Don’t drive yourself to the hospital (unless it is your only option) because you may pass out while driving.
Diagnosis and Treatment
A doctor or nurse will take a blood sample to determine the amount of CO in the blood. Once CO levels increase to 70 parts per million (ppm) and above, symptoms become more noticeable.
The best way to treat CO poisoning is to breathe in pure oxygen. This treatment increases oxygen levels in the blood and helps to remove CO from the blood. The emergency healthcare provider will place an oxygen mask over your nose and mouth and ask you to inhale. If you’re unable to breathe on your own, you will be given oxygen through a ventilator.
Pressurized oxygen chambers (also known as a hyperbaric oxygen chambers) are also used to treat CO poisoning. The oxygen chamber has twice the pressure of normal air. This treatment quickly increases oxygen levels in the blood and it’s typically used in severe cases of CO poisoning or to treat CO poisoning in pregnant women.
Preventing Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
Risks specific to off-grid and emergency situations
When power outages occur after severe weather, using alternative sources of power can cause carbon monoxide (CO) to build up in a home and poison the people and animals inside.
During any kind of emergency that results in a power outage, you may be so consumed by doing the things you need to do to survive that the thought of CO poisoning doesn’t cross your mind. For this reason, it is important to understand the risks and learn how to prevent poisoning now, while you are clear-headed and can prepare adequately.
One of your first precautionary measures should be installing battery-operated or battery back-up CO detectors near every sleeping area in your home. Check your CO detectors regularly to be sure they are functioning properly.
There are many sources of possible CO poisoning that are commonly used during off-grid events and power outages.
CO is found in fumes produced by portable generators, stoves, lanterns, and gas ranges, or by burning charcoal and wood.
Never use a generator inside your home or garage, even if all the doors and windows are open. Only use generators outside – and be sure to place them more than 20 feet away from your home.
This informative video explains why you should never place generators close to your home:
Never use grills, or other gasoline, propane, or charcoal-burning devices inside your home, garage, or carport or near doors, windows, or vents. If you have a gas oven, do not attempt to heat your home with it.
Recreational vehicles with gas heaters also pose a risk, so ensure there is plenty of ventilation if your RV burns gas, wood, propane, or other fuel. Buy a CO detector and place it in an area near the source of CO. Be sure to change the batteries regularly.
Change the batteries in your CO detector every six months. If you don’t have a battery-powered or battery back-up CO detector, buy one soon.
Never leave the motor running in a vehicle parked in an enclosed or partially enclosed space, such as a garage.
Never run a generator, pressure washer, or any gasoline-powered engine inside a basement, garage, or other enclosed structure, even if the doors or windows are open. Keep vents and flues free of debris. Flying debris can block ventilation lines.
Never run a motor vehicle, generator, pressure washer, or any gasoline-powered engine less than 20 feet from an open window, door, or vent where exhaust can vent into an enclosed area.
When you use a generator, use a battery-powered or battery backup CO detector in your home too.
Never use a charcoal grill, hibachi, lantern, or portable camping stove inside a home, tent, or camper.
If it’s too hot, seek shelter with friends or at a community shelter.
If you suspect CO poisoning, call 911 or a health care professional right away.
To prevent CO poisoning in your vehicle, the CDC recommends the following:
Have a mechanic check the exhaust system of your car or truck every year. A small leak in the exhaust system can lead to a build-up of CO inside the car.
Never run your car or truck inside a garage that is attached to a house even with the garage door open. Always open the door to a detached garage to let in fresh air when you run a car or truck inside.
If you drive a car or SUV with a tailgate when you open the tailgate open the vents or windows to make sure air is moving through. If only the tailgate is open CO from the exhaust will be pulled into the car or SUV.
To learn about CO poisoning risks on boats, the CDC recommends the following:
Install and maintain a working CO detector listed by Underwriters’ Laboratories (UL) as appropriate for marine use inside the boat to alert people when dangerous levels of CO have built up inside the boat cabin.
Properly install and maintain all fuel-burning engines and appliances.
Educate all passengers about the signs and symptoms of CO poisoning.
Swim and play away from areas where engines vent their exhaust.
Watch children closely when they play on rear swim decks or water platforms.
Never block exhaust outlets. Blocking outlets can cause CO to build up in the cabin and cockpit areas–even when hatches, windows, portholes, and doors are closed.
Dock, beach, or anchor at least 20 feet away from the nearest boat that is running a generator or engine. Exhaust from a nearby vessel can send CO into the cabin and cockpit of a boat.
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