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The Dangers of Carbon Monoxide

danger sign; poison; gas; carbon monoxide


Every few months a new tragic story about a fatal carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning surfaces.  The stories of the dangers of carbon monoxide and the people who have lost their lives from a common environmental compound can be sad and unsettling.  CO poisoning is preventable but first it is essential to know some general information about this dangerous gas.

Many individuals are aware that car exhaust emissions contain carbon monoxide but unfortunately the grayish, smoky, irritating smell is not what CO smells or looks like.  In reality CO is a toxic, odorless, colorless gas.  This compound is often confused with carbon dioxide (CO2).  CO2 is a product of respiration meaning that people and other mammals breath it out. CO, on the other hand, comes from incomplete combustion found in exhaust emissions and other gas-powered appliances and pieces of equipment.  While it may seem that the outdoor air is only affected by CO, windows, doors, and leaking chimneys can very easily draw in CO from the outside.  This can be especially pronounced if the home is close to a busy road or has an attached parking garage as is the case for many Chicago residents.  

Indoor sources can contribute to elevated levels of CO as well.  Gas stoves, furnaces, gas space heaters, hot water heaters, and generators can dangerously raise CO levels when not vented correctly.

High concentrations of CO can be fatal which is why many cities, like Chicago, require that carbon monoxide alarms be installed.  Carbon monoxide detectors alert the occupant of deadly concentrations, but lower concentrations may not sound the alarm.  Lower concentrations can have adverse health effects including fatigue in healthy individuals and chest pain in people with heart disease.  A quick synopsis on how CO enters the body may help highlight the danger of this compound.  

First, the body transports oxygen using the air inhaled through the lungs.  The oxygen within the air is transported throughout the body using red blood cells.  Carbon monoxide impedes the body’s ability to transport oxygen by occupying the oxygen binding sites within these red blood cells.  With less bonding sites available, less oxygen can be delivered to cells.  The higher the concentration of CO in the blood, the less oxygen is available for the body and the more dangerous it becomes.  The health effects from being exposed to CO can be detrimental to anyone, not just a single demographic.

Being informed about this common compound is very important, it may even prevent another tragic story.

Ian Cull

Ian Cull is a nationally recognized expert in the field of indoor air quality. He is the Chief Science Officer of Indoor Science, a company he started in 2004. He speaks around the world on air quality topics and is a training provider of the Indoor Air Quality Association. Mr. Cull is a Licensed Professional Engineer (PE) and Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH). His degree is in Environmental Engineering from the University of Illinois - Urbana Champaign. Mr. Cull has developed 50 air quality related courses for the IAQA University and is the author of the book, “Fundamentals of Mold Remediation”. In his words… “Besides being passionate about indoor air quality, I enjoy cycling, music, the Chicago Bulls, and having fun with my three kids.”