Poison in the Air: The Dangers of Carbon Monoxide

Powerful Poison

Every year, more than 500 people -- including about 30 kids -- die from unintentional carbon-monoxide poisoning, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The U.S. Coast Guard reported 140 deaths and 714 poisonings from carbon monoxide in the boating community between 1990 and 2007, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission says that 140 deaths annually are associated with products such as generators, furnaces, grills, heaters, and stoves. But these government agencies admit that their statistics are probably incomplete. When someone is rushed to the ER after a mysterious accident or near-drowning, doctors may not think to do a blood or Breathalyzer test for carbon monoxide. "Those of us who work in this field suspect that there are many more carbon monoxide-related deaths, as well as nonfatal poisonings, than the official figures show," says David G. Penney, PhD, editor of Carbon Monoxide Toxicity.

Carbon monoxide is a growing problem because it's produced by the sorts of gas-powered products that have become more popular in the last five to 10 years. "People are being exposed to emissions from increasingly affordable equipment that seems fairly harmless," says Kevin Dunn, an industrial hygienist at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Millions of people have bought portable generators, for example, in case of power outages. Tests by the Environmental Protection Agency, however, have shown that a portable generator can emit as much carbon monoxide as hundreds of idling cars. Lawn mowers, leaf blowers, charcoal and gas grills, power washers, chain saws, and all-terrain vehicles can also be hazardous. Even water-skiers need to be wary: An idling ski-boat motor can create extremely high levels of carbon monoxide.

G. Scott Earnest, PhD, chief of NIOSH's Engineering and Physical Hazards branch, remembers conducting a test with a five-horsepower gasoline engine, which is typically used in portable generators and other tools. "We cranked up the engine, and within minutes there were high levels of carbon monoxide. I was shocked that a potentially deadly situation could occur so quickly."

Since carbon monoxide doesn't smell and isn't visible, parents don't think much about it -- or suspect it as a possible cause when someone gets sick. The initial symptoms -- headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea, shortness of breath, confusion -- can seem like those caused by the flu or food poisoning or by warm-weather illnesses like heat exhaustion.

Babies, as well as children who have asthma or other respiratory or heart problems, are particularly vulnerable to the effects of carbon monoxide. Pregnant women also need to be very careful, because the gas can cross the placenta and can lead to low birth weight, birth defects, or even miscarriage. Although children who are diagnosed and promptly treated can recover, exposure to carbon monoxide may cause lasting neurological damage.

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