Carbon Monoxide Awareness

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By Andrew Haymart, CHST, Industrial Hygiene Technician

Carbon Monoxide (CO), often called the invisible killer, is an odorless, colorless, tasteless, and poisonous gas; CO overexposure that causes thousands of people to visit emergency rooms in North America each year. CO exposure is created when fuels such as gasoline, wood, coal, natural gas, propane, oil, and methane burn incompletely. CO is often associated with the use of fuel-powered equipment (thermal combustion) that runs indoors without proper ventilation.

CO enters the body through inhalation and interferes with the blood’s ability to carry oxygen. In some cases, this can also lead to serious tissue damage. In individuals with cardiovascular disease, this stress can further impair cardiovascular functions. It can also affect the central nervous system. CO poisoning can be confused with flu-like symptoms, food poisoning, and other illnesses, because some symptoms are non-specific, such as shortness of breath, weakness, dizziness, light-headedness or headaches, confusion, blurred vision, upset stomach, and vomiting. High levels of CO can be fatal, causing death within minutes. The airborne concentration of CO, measured in parts per million (ppm), and duration of exposure, are determining factors for health effects and symptoms.

A person can be poisoned by a small amount of CO exposure over a long period of time or by a large amount of CO exposure over a short amount of time. The dangers of CO exposure depend on several variables, including the person’s health, activity level and duration of exposure. Infants, pregnant women, and people with physical conditions that limit their body’s ability to use oxygen (e.g. emphysema, asthma, heart disease) can be more severely affected by lower concentrations of CO than healthy adults would be. If CO poisoning is suspected, move the employee to fresh air and call 911.

It’s important to educate employees about the symptoms of CO overexposures as well as sources or conditions that can lead to high exposure. Here is a helpful resource: Click here

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