Carbon monoxide, a gas that kills

M.D. | 10/4/2012, 4:55 p.m.
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As the weather turns nippier and frost comes knocking at our doors, we tend to seal all openings to contain our home's warmth. The home's environment now becomes contaminated with many gases produced by heating and cooking.

The air that we breathe daily is made up of several life-giving gases, among them, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide. When these gases react with one another, they produce substances that are essential for life on this planet. For example, when one part of oxygen reacts with two parts of hydrogen, water is produced (H20). When plants take up the carbon dioxide produced by living creatures, they give off oxygen, which is essential for life.

It is therefore obvious that we need plants to survive on this planet. If plants die, we all die. Please be kind to plants and trees.

There is a gas I didn't mention that is produced in our homes by water heaters, gas stoves, heating systems and dryers. This gas is carbon monoxide. The unique property of this gas is that it can displace oxygen in the blood. The red material in the blood is made up of hemoglobin, which carries oxygen to all of the organs in the body and is used for fuel. When carbon monoxide is present, it replaces the oxygen, which causes death to cells in the body.

Carbon monoxide is colorless, odorless, tasteless and is difficult to detect unless you have a carbon monoxide detector, which all homes should be supplied with. Often, when a house is completely winterized and becomes airtight with sealed windows and doors, carbon monoxide can build up and cause death. Warning! Do not cover windows completely with plastic, for this will not allow some outside air to enter. Often, just a window slightly open will ensure adequate ventilation.

Carbon monoxide poisoning often mimics flu-like symptoms such as nasal stuffiness, fatigue, headaches, nausea and a feeling of light-headedness. Do not be fooled by these symptoms. It is important to realize that carbon monoxide may be the cause of these symptoms.

Since it is difficult to detect carbon monoxide's presence, it is important to have a home supplied with carbon monoxide detectors, which should be placed at all floor levels.

I recall an incident when I was working in the ER of a city hospital. I observed a family of five returning weekly with chronic coughs, difficulty breathing and headaches. They were treated for flu symptoms and sent home. When they returned to the ER, and a more detailed history was taken, it was revealed that they were living in an unheated house, using a stove to provide much-needed heat. It was also related that the furnace in the basement was not working properly. Oh, by the way, they had also purchased a kerosene stove. It was evident that these symptoms were possibly being caused by carbon monoxide. I immediately called a social worker to see whether I could have this family housed temporarily in a local motel while their home was investigated by the health department for the presence of this deadly gas. I'm sure lives were saved.

Remember, carbon monoxide poisoning can mimic upper respiratory symptoms. All homes should be equipped with carbon monoxide and smoke detectors.