Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Mirror Article, February, 1998:

Expert Advice


by David G. Penney, Ph.D.

As discussed in my first two articles on carbon monoxide, it is a dangerous poison which many people are exposed to, one whose symptoms are diagnosed with great difficulty, and a toxin that can have disastrous effects on health. The most serious threat from CO is now proving to be longterm or chronic, lower level poisoning.

A recent study in England known as CO Support, again shows that contrary to the perception of most of the medical community, the after-effects of chronic CO poisoning can be very serious. They found that those suffering from chronic CO poisoning experienced a wide range of symptoms, including headache, nausea, tiredness, dizziness, memory loss, concentration problems, personality and emotional change, hallucinations, panic attacks, sleep disturbance, clumsiness, severe muscle pains, trembling, vision problems, and loss of hearing. On average, symptoms such as headache and dizziness were experienced for almost 2 years prior to CO being identified as the problem.

In many cases, symptoms persisted for 2-3 years after CO poisoning ceased - some are still continuing. Memory loss as a problem increased after CO exposure ceased. Neck and back pain and deep muscle pain remained the most persistent problems. Although some victims recovered completely, a significant fraction remained permanently incapacitated and unable to work. Over 45% of the chronic victims were unable to work an average of 4 years after CO poisoning ceased. Household income fell by 20%.

About 70% of the CO poisonings took place in the victims homes. More cases occurred in houses than in apartments - many were owner occupied. Two-thirds of victims were women, in most cases 30-45 years of age.

This U.K. study found that general practice physicians failed to diagnose chronic CO poisoning. In only one case of 77 was poisoning detected on the basis of the symptoms alone. Misdiagnoses included flu, viral infection, depression, myalgic encephalitis, and psychosomatic illness. Nearly 60% were given no diagnosis for their symptoms. The most common misdiagnosis was flu or "virus". Eight percent were diagnosed with depression.

Few victims (less than 15%) were offered blood tests for carboxyhemoglobin to determine the severity of the CO poisoning. Where such tests were performed, results were sometimes misinterpreted by hospitals and physicians, or the test was delayed for hours or days, making the results unusable. Only 2% of the chronic CO poisoning victims were offered hyperbaric oxygen treatment.

The presence of CO, usually in the residence, was discovered in the majority of cases by service personnel or by investigation of the appliance in question. In some cases warning was given by an alarm or detector, in others by the collapse of a family member. In many cases, regular service of the appliance failed to identify the problem - service may even have been regular for several years in these cases.

I urge everyone have one or more CO detectors in their home. Detectors guard against this invisible, odorless, tasteless poison, even while you sleep.

If you suspect you are 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

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