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Frequently Asked Questions: Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

In our daily lives, we are often surrounded by potential sources of danger in the least expected places. One particular threat that has garnered attention is carbon monoxide poisoning, which can pose severe health risks, sometimes leading to fatal consequences.

Despite its well-recognised danger, there’s an air of mystique surrounding this silent killer which we aim to dispel throughout this in-depth blog post. Let’s answer some of the most frequently asked questions about CO poisoning.

What is Carbon Monoxide?

Frequently regarded as the “silent killer”, carbon monoxide (CO) is a colourless, tasteless and odourless gas that can cause severe harm when too much is inhaled. The origins of carbon monoxide are diverse and almost omnipresent, primarily found wherever combustion or burning occurs. This includes gas appliances, indoor burning of charcoal, and motor vehicle exhausts.

A crucial understanding point to make is that carbon monoxide is different from carbon dioxide. While they both are products of combustion, carbon dioxide is harmless in small amounts, unlike the latter.

Carbon monoxide binds onto haemoglobin and inhibits the release of oxygen in the body, causing hypoxia and leading to carbon monoxide intoxication or, more popularly, carbon monoxide poisoning.

How Does Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Develop?

Carbon monoxide poisoning occurs due to the inhalation of high levels of carbon monoxide, an odourless and colourless gas. This harmful gas is typically produced from burning fuels like petrol, wood, propane, or coal.

Correspondingly, faulty fuel-burning appliances, including space heaters, boilers, gas stoves, or car exhaust fumes from an attached garage can lead to dangerous levels of carbon monoxide indoors.

CO, once inhaled, enters our bloodstream, where it binds with the oxygen-carrying component known as haemoglobin in the red blood cells. The bond carbon monoxide forms with haemoglobin is over 200 times stronger than the bond between haemoglobin and oxygen. This results in the development of a substance called carboxyhaemoglobin (COHb).

When haemoglobin binds with CO to form COHb, it diminishes the red blood cells’ capacity to carry enough oxygen. This process deprives the critical organs, including the brain and heart, of the oxygen they need to function properly.

The longer an individual is exposed to carbon monoxide, the more COHb is created, and the less oxygen they can transport throughout their body. This is the primary cause of serious, even fatal, health problems related to carbon monoxide poisoning.

Testing for carbon monoxide leakage

What are the Types of CO Poisoning?

Health impacts of carbon monoxide occur when exposure escalates, resulting in monoxide poisoning. Ranging from mild symptoms such as headache and dizziness to severe neurological damage, exposure to high levels of carbon monoxide can cause life-threatening health conditions. In Australia and beyond, acute and chronic carbon monoxide exposure is recognised as a substantial public health concern.

CO poisoning is primarily broken down into two categories: Acute and chronic. While acute carbon monoxide poisoning results from high-level exposure within a short time, chronic exposure happens over a more extended period, typically from lower-level exposure. Both can culminate in serious health implications that can even be fatal.

How Does CO Get in Your House?

A logical question that typically springs up from here is: “How does carbon monoxide get in my house?” The primary sources of indoor carbon monoxide include the following:

  • Malfunctioning gas appliances such as natural gas ranges, gas furnaces, and gas stoves.
  • Inadequately ventilated, fuel-burning appliances including space heaters and power generators.
  • Motor vehicle exhaust from attached garages.
  • Smoke from fires.

Incorrectly or poorly ventilated appliances, like gas stoves and heaters, can also potentially produce carbon monoxide, leading to unsafe conditions in the home.

Combustion devices used in poorly ventilated or enclosed spaces can produce a dangerous concentration of this colourless, tasteless, and odourless gas, also known as carbon monoxide fumes. Stale indoor air lacking in fresh oxygen exacerbates this situation further, leading to an increase in the total level of carbon monoxide.

What are the Causes and Common Symptoms?

Now, you might be wondering, “What are the most common causes of carbon monoxide poisoning?” Primarily, faulty gas appliances, burning fuel in enclosed spaces (e.g. using fuel-burning space heaters or barbecues indoors) and blocked chimneys or flues often account for most cases of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Other sources might include burning charcoal in inadequately ventilated areas, running vehicles in a closed garage, and malfunctioning heating systems.

Symptoms of carbon monoxide exposure, including acute carbon monoxide intoxication or poisoning, are often mistaken for common maladies such as the flu or food poisoning, further amplifying the insidiousness of this gas.

These common symptoms include headaches, dizziness, nausea and fatigue. More severe symptoms that could herald acute or severe carbon monoxide poisoning may encompass mental confusion, vomiting, loss of muscular coordination, and loss of consciousness.

In cases of suspected carbon monoxide poisoning, immediate action needs to be taken to prevent further harm. Early signs of monoxide poisoning can be similar to food poisoning, with headaches, dizziness, nausea and shortness of breath being common symptoms.

Testing for CO leakage

How is CO Poisoning Diagnosed?

Diagnosing carbon monoxide poisoning usually begins with identifying relevant symptoms, which can range from headaches, nausea, and drowsiness, to more severe indicators of poisoning such as confusion and loss of consciousness.

The definitive way to diagnose carbon monoxide poisoning is through blood tests. These tests measure the COHb levels in the blood, which reflects the amount of carbon monoxide the body has absorbed.

The formation of COHb is crucial to understand because, upon absorption into the bloodstream, carbon monoxide binds to haemoglobin, creating COHb. The presence of this compound prevents the blood from delivering adequate oxygen to the body’s organs and tissues. Therefore, the assessment of COHb levels coupled with arterial blood gases (ABGs), including measured oxygen saturation, is the standard diagnostic procedure for carbon monoxide poisoning.

However, given the rapid and potentially life-threatening nature of carbon monoxide poisoning, it’s essential to receive immediate medical attention upon presenting symptoms, even before test results can confirm the diagnosis. If carbon monoxide poisoning is suspected, treatment will typically begin while waiting for the test results to reduce any potential health risks.

How Long Does it Take for CO Poisoning to Hit?

The amount of time it takes for carbon monoxide poisoning to manifest depends on multiple factors, including the level of CO present in the air, the duration of exposure, and the individual’s age and overall health.

As a general rule, the higher the concentration of carbon monoxide, the more rapid the onset of symptoms. For instance, in an environment with extremely high levels of CO gas, symptoms may appear within several minutes, whereas in cases of low-level exposure, symptoms may take hours or even days to emerge.

Some individuals may only experience mild headaches or dizziness, while others may experience more severe symptoms, depending on the circumstances and their individual sensitivities.

It is crucial to remember that even low-level, continuous exposure to carbon monoxide over an extended period can have severe health impacts. Prolonged exposure to CO can negatively affect the cardiovascular and neurological systems and may lead to long-term complications.

In any case, if you suspect you have been exposed to carbon monoxide or are experiencing symptoms consistent with CO poisoning, it is essential to immediately exit the affected area and seek fresh air. Once you are in a safe location, call emergency services for further assistance.

What Can I Do About CO Poisoning?

In the event of suspected carbon monoxide poisoning, immediate action can make a significant difference in the severity of the health implications.

  1. Recognise the symptoms: A crucial first step involves recognising symptoms of CO poisoning, such as headache, dizziness, nausea, shortness of breath, weakness, vomiting, and confusion. More severe symptoms might include chest pain, irregular heartbeats, and blurry vision.
  2. Move to fresh air: Once you suspect CO poisoning, try to gather all individuals and pets in the vicinity and move to a well-ventilated area or outdoors.
  3. Call emergency services: Contact emergency services (000) immediately, informing them about the possibility of CO exposure.
  4. Turn off potential CO sources: If you can do so safely, turning off the potential sources of CO can prevent further exposure.
  5. Initiate resuscitation measures: If a person is unconscious and not breathing, it’s critical to initiate cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).
  6. Seek medical care: Even after immediate response measures, it’s essential to seek professional medical attention as soon as possible if someone is ill. Medical practitioners can conduct tests to confirm the level of CO in the body and provide appropriate treatment.

Please remember that while these steps can help in an emergency, prevention is always the best approach. Regularly service appliances, ensure sufficient ventilation, and install CO detectors following Australian standards to best guard against the devastating effects of CO poisoning.

A gas fitter checks a newly installed heater

What Treatments are Available?

The primary treatment for carbon monoxide poisoning is the immediate intake of pure oxygen. This can be done through a mask that covers the nose and mouth or, in severe cases, using a ventilator. Breathing in pure oxygen allows the replacement of carbon monoxide in your body with much-needed oxygen.

If the poisoning is substantial, the patient might require hyperbaric oxygen therapy. In this procedure, the patient is placed in a chamber filled with pure oxygen at high pressure, which helps to quickly reduce the amount of carbon monoxide in the blood and decrease the oxygen requirement of the body tissues.

Additionally, it’s important to move the affected individual away from the source of carbon monoxide to prevent further exposure. Any additional treatment would depend on the degree of poisoning and any associated complications.

For example, individuals experiencing severe symptoms, such as unconsciousness or cardiac problems, might require additional therapeutic measures, like respiratory support or cardiac monitoring.

Can You Prevent Carbon Monoxide Poisoning?

If you’re concerned about the possible threat of carbon monoxide poisoning, particularly during the winter months, prevention becomes critical. Several steps can be taken to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.

These include the following:

  • Installation of carbon monoxide detectors: The most effective measure to guard against carbon monoxide poisoning is by installing carbon monoxide detectors throughout your home. These devices should comply with Australian standards. They should be strategically placed near bedrooms and living areas to alert sleeping individuals. Frequently check and replace their batteries and replace the detectors as per the manufacturer’s recommended lifespan.
  • Consistent maintenance and servicing of appliances: Ensure all your appliances, especially fuel-burning ones, undergo regular servicing. This measure helps make sure they’re functioning correctly and not producing hazardous levels of carbon monoxide.
  • Ensuring adequate ventilation in all rooms: Ensure that all rooms, particularly those with gas appliances, are amply ventilated. Sufficient ventilation can prevent the build-up of carbon monoxide.
  • Strict adherence to manufacturer instructions: Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions when operating appliances. For instance, never resort to using appliances such as gas stoves or ovens for heating purposes. This misuse may lead to dangerous levels of carbon monoxide accumulation in your home.
  • Avoid operating engines in enclosed spaces: If you’re using power-generating devices or other engine-driven tools, never operate them in confined spaces, even if doors and windows are open. Ensure you always operate such equipment outside and away from windows, doors, and vents of your home to prevent carbon monoxide build-up.
  • Use of fuel-burning appliances only in outdoor settings: Always use barbecues, portable gas stoves and other fuel-burning camping equipment outside your home. While some gas appliances are designed for indoor use, these devices are meant to be used outdoors, not inside.
  • Regular inspection to avoid blockage in vents or flues: Regularly maintain and check your chimney and vents or flues for any potential blockages. Such blockages can trap and lead to the accumulation of carbon monoxide in your living spaces.
  • Taking precautions with car exhaust: As part of your safety measures, never leave a vehicle running in an attached garage or next to open windows of your home, even with the garage door open. The exhaust can still infiltrate your home and expose you to a potential carbon monoxide risk.

Understood as a whole, ensuring your home is well-equipped to prevent CO leaks and being aware of associated risk factors can significantly minimise your chances of encountering carbon monoxide poisoning.

Testing for CO leakage

Stay Vigilant and Stay Safe

Carbon monoxide poisoning is an insidious and potentially deadly risk that many people may unknowingly encounter in their daily lives. This silent, odourless and colourless gas can creep into your living spaces unnoticed, causing severe to fatal health implications.

However, with comprehensive knowledge about its origins, the development and symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, and ways to diagnose and treat such cases, we can better equip ourselves against this invisible danger.

Safeguarding our homes and lives against CO poisoning involves consistent maintenance of our fuel-burning appliances and ensuring ample ventilation in our living spaces.

What’s more, using carbon monoxide detectors which follow Australian standards is a critical preventive measure. These detectors, when placed strategically in homes near bedrooms and living areas, can alert you to any harmful levels of this deadly gas.

Recognising the symptoms of CO poisoning can also play a pivotal role in preventing its dangerous consequences. Always seek immediate medical attention if symptoms like headaches, dizziness or nausea persist.

Medical practitioners can conduct blood tests to determine the level of carbon monoxide in your system and prescribe appropriate treatments, including the administration of pure oxygen.

In short, be vigilant about the risks posed by carbon monoxide and stay informed about prevention and treatment methods. By taking these proactive measures, we can protect ourselves, our families, and even our communities from the debilitating effects of CO poisoning. Stay informed, stay safe, and make sure you’re always breathing fresh and harmless air.

Please note: This information is provided for advice purposes only. Regulations differ from state to state, so please consult your local authorities or an industry professional before proceeding with any work. See our Terms & Conditions here.