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Carbon monoxide—a gas that kills

Gerald W. Deas M.D., MPH | 12/7/2017, 3:42 p.m.

The air that we breathe daily is made up of several life-giving gases, including 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. When plants take up carbon dioxide that is 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 oxygen and 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 because that will not allow outside air to enter. Often, just a window slightly open will ensure adequate ventilation.

Carbon monoxide poisoning often mimics flu 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.

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

On one occasion, when I was working in the ER of a city hospital, I observed a family of five returning weekly with chronic cough, 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 and using the 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 being caused possibly by carbon monoxide. I immediately called a social worker to see if I could have this family housed temporarily in a local motel while their home was being investigated by the health department for the presence of this deadly gas. I’m sure lives were saved.

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