Carbon monoxide: Silent but deadly

By Seth Hammons

When the weather gets cold, we often turn on the heater or toss another log on the fire. However, if not set up properly, these sources of heat can release a dangerous gas into the air that can’t be seen or smelled. It is called carbon monoxide.

Whenever something burns, oxygen is consumed along with the material burning. Energy is released as light (flames), and more importantly, heat. In normal situations, the by-products of water vapor and carbon dioxide are released. However, when a fire is short on oxygen, it will produce carbon monoxide instead of carbon dioxide, and that’s where the trouble starts.

Carbon monoxide is a dangerous, deadly gas. It cannot be seen. It cannot be smelled. When inhaled, it binds strongly to molecules in our red blood cells, taking the place of oxygen. Once inside the red blood cells, carbon monoxide will not easily leave. When too much of it gets into your blood, not enough oxygen can be delivered to your body, and symptoms start to show up.

Short-term, mild carbon monoxide poisoning can cause headaches, confusion and feelings of light-headedness. Long-term mild poisoning can produce depression and memory loss. Large doses of carbon monoxide can be fatal, shutting down the heart and brain. Each year, accidental carbon monoxide poisoning is responsible for 20,000 emergency room visits, 4,000 hospitalizations and 400 deaths. There is no antidote drug to remove carbon monoxide from the blood. Treatment involves giving the patient high concentrations of oxygen to help push the toxic gas out, and can take several days.

Clearly, carbon monoxide is something we need to take seriously, and we do. Back in 1975, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency put strict regulations in place regarding carbon monoxide production by automobiles, because the internal combustion engines generated too much of the toxic gas. The solution to that problem was the catalytic converter, which helps reduce the levels of carbon monoxide and has been standard on all cars for several decades.

While we don’t put catalytic converters on wood-burning stoves and the like, there are things we can do to prevent carbon monoxide from building up in our homes. First, make sure your heating system has proper ventilation. Pipes from heaters and stoves should run up and away, be fitted tightly and never be patched with tape. Chimneys should be checked every year before cold weather sets in, as a blockage can cause carbon monoxide to build up. Portable gas stoves and charcoal should never be used for indoor heating. Lastly, consider having a heating technician check your system.

Perhaps the most important safety measure is having a carbon monoxide detector, which is different from a smoke detector and can alert you if levels of the toxic gas become serious. Local stores carry them, and they cost somewhere between $15 and $30. Remember to replace the batteries as needed, and enjoy what little cold weather remains of this winter season.