How Carbon Monoxide Affects the Human Body

How Carbon Monoxide Affects the Human Body
How Carbon Monoxide Affects the Human Body (Image: Home carbon monoxide detector (public domain))

Carbon Monoxide Exposure

Carbon monoxide is an invisible, odorless gas. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), it can kill a person within minutes. How does such a lethal gas make its way into our homes? The answer is simple: when any type of fuel, whether gas, kerosene or even wood is combusted, carbon monoxide is released into the air. This can be dangerous inside a home or building containing any of a variety of appliances, especially in structures with poor ventilation. According to the EPA, prevention is key in avoiding carbon monoxide poisoning. A carbon monoxide detector, while useful, may not function properly, so it is important to make sure appliances such as stoves, gas heaters and even wood stoves have properly installed ventilation systems. However, sometimes we do breathe carbon monoxide, and it causes identifiable physical effects and symptoms in the body. Examining these will help us recognize how to identify exposure to this deadly gas and to know when to call in an emergency.

Carbon Monoxide's Physiological Effects

The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety & Health Association (OSHA) classifies carbon monoxide as an asphyxiant, which means that it displaces oxygen and causes symptoms including death from asphyxiation, or lack of oxygen to the bloodstream and therefore to the brain. When carbon monoxide gas is inhaled, it prevents a person's blood from carrying enough life-maintaining oxygen to the body and brain---which is why it is so lethal at high levels. Even at lower levels, carbon monoxide is dangerous, especially for people with pre-existing medical conditions such as heart disease, asthma and bronchitis, among others. According to OSHA, the maximum permissible exposure limit for people is 50ppm (parts per million) of regular air, and it is recommended that the ambient level never exceed 35ppm to be on the safe side. As one can quite easily see, it doesn't take much carbon monoxide to produce a hazardous home or work environment---only .0005 percent of the air we breathe can contain carbon monoxide and be considered a permissible upper limit.

Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

It is common knowledge that high levels of carbon monoxide can be lethal in a matter of minutes, and the symptoms occur quickly: unconsciousness followed by death. The EPA lists the manifest symptoms of carbon monoxide exposure upon the body by two other levels: low and moderate. Low levels of carbon monoxide produce symptoms such as mild headaches, nausea and shortness of breath. Long-term exposure to mild levels of carbon monoxide can cause complications over time. Moderate exposure to carbon monoxide exhibits a wide variety of identifiable symptoms in the person affected. At this level of exposure, the headaches can become severe, dizziness and mental confusion may occur as well. A person exposed to moderate levels of carbon monoxide may even faint. The EPA points out that many of these symptoms might be confused with other ailments, such as the flu or the common cold or even food poisoning. With this in mind, it is of paramount importance to be aware of your home or work environment and recognize the warning signs of carbon monoxide poisoning. Should you suspect you, or someone near you, is experiencing carbon monoxide poisoning, the EPA says immediate fresh air and emergency medical treatment are essential.

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