Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Mirror Article, October 9, 1997:

Expert Advice


by David G. Penney, Ph.D.

As discussed in my first article, carbon monoxide is a dangerous poison to which many people are exposed. It results from the incomplete combustion of any carbonaceous material. CO can cause sickness, permanent health damage, and indeed death. Because it is a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas, CO cannot be sensed by us.

The most serious threat from CO is now proving to be longterm, lower level poisoning. We call this chronic exposure. It can result from faulty furnaces or hot water heaters leaking fumes, autos idling in an open or closed attached garage, etc. Actually, most chronic CO exposures also involve repeated episodes of higher level acute exposure. Regardless of the exact pattern of CO exposure, the consequences can be serious. The air in many homes contains more CO than does outside air.

Chronic CO poisoning may not elicit the typical symptoms of acute CO poisoning - headache, nausea, weakness, dizziness, etc. The skin and lips will rarely be "cherry pink". This makes diagnosis difficult. Consequently the misdiagnosis rate for CO poisoning by medical professionals is very high. It is often characterized as chronic fatigue syndrome, a viral or bacterial pulmonary or gastrointestinal infection, a "run-down" condition, immune deficiency, clinical depression, or an endocrine disorder.

CO in the blood, the site of its toxic action, is usually not excessively elevated in chronic exposure. More often than not, by the time blood or air CO is measured, the condition has been corrected, making the values useless.

Similar symptoms seen simultaneously in more than one person, and which disappear upon leaving the local environment are tip-offs/clues that CO is involved. Symptoms that coincide with the heating season is another clue. Listless or dead pets indicate you should seek immediate help.

Chronic CO poisoning often masquerades as lethargy, listlessness, lack of motivation, sleepiness, etc. The health/behavioral changes you experience are frequently subtle and are recognized as being related to CO exposure only after a protracted period. Often a family member or close friend is the first to notice them. Recognition of CO's involvement often occurs by happen-stance, as during a furnace repair or cleaning.

Clearly there are a number of problems in recognizing and proving chronic CO poisoning:

  • the symptoms are recognized by few physicians/nurses
  • exposure is usually discovered only after a long period of exposure
  • the toxic effects vary from one individual to the next
  • useful blood and air CO measurements are rarely obtained
  • damage to the central nervous system is seldom identifiable by the usual clinical tests (MRI, CT)
  • the availability of relevant medical/scientific literature is scant.

    People most at risk from the deleterious effects of CO poisoning, whether acute or chronic, are unborn and young children, the aged, and individuals with heart failure and coronary heart disease.

    Management of CO poisoning consists of immediate removal from the source of the gas, and rapid transport to a clinic or hospital. Patients are started breathing 100% oxygen, and if the poisoning is deemed severe, they are given hyperbaric oxygen.

    I believe everyone should have one or more CO detectors in their home. They guard against CO poisoning, even while you sleep.

    If you suspect you a victim of chronic CO poisoning, you should immediately call the fire or police departments, or the gas company for help.

    For additional information on CO poisoning, use the internet to access Carbon Monoxide Headquarters on the World Wide Web, at

    ...... last changed 12/25/99

    Mirror Article of February, 1998

    Back to Mirror Article of July 24, 1997

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