For Immediate Release:
SAINT PAUL, MN – Each year about 50,000 people visit emergency rooms in the United States for CO poisoning, and more than 500 die each year from this silent, odorless, colorless gas. As part of Winter Hazard Awareness Week (November 5-9), the Minnesota Department of Commerce warns Minnesotans of the dangers of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning and to take steps to avoid this “silent killer.”
“Carbon monoxide at high levels is a deadly poison and in lesser concentrations can cause or exacerbate illnesses,” said Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman. “It is paramount that the symptoms of CO poisoning are promptly recognized and addressed, and that people understand the source of CO and how to prevent CO poisoning.”
What is CO?
CO is a gas that you can’t see or feel. It can build up to dangerous concentrations indoors when fuel-burning devices—furnaces, water heaters, gas or kerosene space heaters, gas boilers, gas ranges and ovens, gas dryers, charcoal or gas grills, fireplaces and wood stoves, vehicles, and yard equipment—are not properly vented, operated or maintained. CO is most common in the winter months, when a heating system malfunctions in a home or when a car engine is left running in a garage.
How does CO harm people?
When CO is inhaled into the lungs it displaces the oxygen in the blood stream and affects all major organs and muscles. CO prevents oxygen from being used by the body, and the higher the concentration of CO in the air, the more rapid the oxygen displacement and the greater the health risk.
According to the Carbon Monoxide Safety Association, for healthy people, symptoms of CO poisoning (headaches, fatigue, shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, and confusion) may begin at CO levels of 36-99 parts per million (ppm). However, exposure to lower levels of CO (about 5-30 ppm) over extended periods of time may also contribute to illness. Exposure at higher levels and of longer duration will produce more severe symptoms. For example, at 800 ppm, nausea, dizziness and convulsions may occur, and death can occur within 2 hours at that level. At 1,600 ppm, death can occur within 1 hour.
Effects of CO vary from person to person, but people at increased risk of CO poisoning include pregnant women, the elderly, people with chronic health conditions, and people engaged in strenuous physical activity. CO poisoning mimics many common illnesses such as food poisoning, and it is frequently confused with a flu-like condition.
“CO poisoning is an under-tested and often misdiagnosed malady,” said Bob Dwyer, a consultant for the Carbon Monoxide Safety Association. Physicians can perform a simple, noninvasive carboxyhemoglobin percentage test on patients presenting with CO poison symptoms. The test measures the percent of CO in the hemoglobin of one’s blood. About 1 to 4 percent is considered normal for nonsmokers.
Preventing CO poisoning
The Minnesota Department of Health offers the following tips to help protect you and your family from CO poisoning: