As the weather gets cooler, executives and their families are turning on the heat and building crackling fires. Rainy or snowy days can encourage starting the car in the garage. But there are hidden dangers lurking. Any fuel that is burned – gas, oil, kerosene, wood, or charcoal – produces carbon monoxide (CO). CO is odorless, colorless, and doesn’t have other warning symptoms such as skin or lung irritation. This unfortunately means that many people ignore the symptoms – which can mimic a flu or headache. Yet, depending on the exposure level – CO can cause permanent damage including loss of memory, personality changes, cognitive disorders or worse – death.
Carbon Monoxide exposure is the leading cause of poisoning deaths each year – yet it is completely preventable.
Hundreds of accidental deaths happen every year from CO poisoning produced when fuel-burning appliances are used improperly, malfunction or are not correctly vented. More die from CO caused by idling cars in enclosed spaces. How does CO cause all this harm? When CO enters the body, it combines with the oxygen carrying hemoglobin component of the blood to form carboxyhemoglobin. Once attached to the hemoglobin, the hemoglobin can’t transport oxygen to body tissues and vital organs, including the heart and brain. How quickly the carboxyhemoglobin builds up in your system is a factor of the concentration inhaled (measured in parts per million or PPM) and the length of the exposure.
What’s worse is the long half-life of carboxyhemoglobin once it is in the blood. Half-life is a measure of how quickly levels return to normal, and the half-life of carboxyhemoglobin is around five hours. This means that depending on the PPM level, it can take five or more hours to drop the level in half, once the individual is no longer inhaling CO. The effects of CO can vary greatly from person to person depending on age, overall health and duration and concentration of exposure. For example, at lower levels, symptoms may be a slight headache occurring within two to 3 hours. At higher levels, headache, dizziness and nausea will occur within 1-2 minutes, and death within 25-30 minutes.
Even busy executives can take the time to protect themselves and their family. Know the symptoms of CO poisoning and act immediately – open windows and get outside into fresh air. Never start your car without opening the garage door and ensuring proper ventilation. Have your furnace, fireplace and other fuel burning appliances and vents inspected annually. And never burn charcoal in an enclosed space like covered patios or in your fireplace. Today’s CO detectors have many new features and should be located in each bedroom and floor of your home. If you suspect CO exposure, seek medical attention immediately.
If you think you may have been exposed to CO in the past, see our doctors at EHS-Corporate Care for a thorough examination.