There’s a new law today in Washington State requiring carbon monoxide (CO) alarms in apartments, condos, and single-family residences. You should have a CO detector on every level of your home (more tips below). I know you’ve heard that CO poisoning is not only dangerous but also potentially fatal. We also often hear horrific stories of accidental deaths from carbon monoxide after natural disasters. A recent study found disaster related deaths are particularly common (your power’s wiped out so you bring in a generator or grill for heating or cooking and get exposed to CO). Using a generator indoors is the most common cause of CO poisoning, followed by use of a grill. Unfortunately, over 400 people die in the US each year from CO poisoning—all of which could be avoided with proper education and detection in the home. The odd thing is that we often get to see CO toxicity play out on our favorite television shows (think Mad Men)~ the ever-again scene where someone clogs up the exhaust pipe of a car with a banana or handkerchief and dies (or attempts to) due to the toxic fumes.
One generator running inside a home, garage, or basement creates the equivalent carbon monoxide of 6 idling cars. Precisely why a generator needs to be 20 feet from inside spaces and away from open windows/doors. Carbon monoxide is found in combustion fumes–it can be produced by cars and trucks, small gasoline engines, stoves, lanterns, burning charcoal and wood, gas ranges, and heating systems. You likely know all this. But…
The thing to know: carbon monoxide in and of itself is more dangerous to babies and young children. Infants in utero, newborns, and young children process carbon monoxide differently, have more severe reactions, and may see effects faster than adults. If you and your young child were in a room that was filling with carbon monoxide, it’s your baby or child that would suffer the consequences first. They may not know how to tell you about their complaints and if they were sleeping you may not even know. Hence all of us needing a CO detector.
The Science of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning:
The red blood cells in our blood circulate oxygen to all of our muscles and organs for survival. When carbon monoxide (CO) is in the air it can function as a disguised villain. When carbon monoxide is inhaled into the lungs via contaminated air, the red blood cell picks up the CO instead of just oxygen. Each carbon monoxide molecule that attaches to a red blood cell displaces a spot for oxygen. Therefore the circulating red blood cells go around the body without oxygen causing improper circulation. Organ failure and death can result after higher and higher level of our cells are bound to CO instead of oxygen.
The graphic is from the Centers For Disease Control (CDC)’s comprehensive review on CO poisoning.