What Is Carbon Monoxide? Plus 5 Common Signs of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

What Is Carbon Monoxide? Yes, that’s right, what is this lethal gas causing panic globally?

For a gas that kills hundreds of people annually and sends about 50,000 to the emergency room, you’d imagine that your human senses can ‘sense’ its presence. Unfortunately, not! Most people know it as a “silent killer.

Carbon monoxide gas has no smell! It is colorless and scentless; hence one would hardly detect its presence. Its invisibility is what makes it lethal. It would penetrate a room without anyone noticing until it was too late. 

However, do not worry because carbon monoxide detectors exist for this reason! T0 helps you detect the presence of this deadly gas. It is a lifesaver. It will help keep you and your loved ones safe from danger.

This article will discuss more carbon monoxide gas, how it is produced, how to detect it, and symptoms of its poisoning, among other frequently asked questions.

What Is Carbon Monoxide?

Carbon monoxide (C.O.) is a colorless, odorless, and tasteless gas. It is caused by incomplete combustion from gas or fuel-burning appliances. The CO gas burns with a yellow flame.

Carbon monoxide also readily dissolves in water, alcohol, and benzene. The gas has a gravity of 0.96716; a boiling point of -190 degrees Celsius. Its solidification point is at -207 degrees Celsius, and the volume is estimated at 13.8 cu.ft./lb. (70oF).

The auto-ignition temperature of the gas in its liquid state is 1128oF. The gas is also classified as an inorganic compound.

It would also help to know where carbon monoxide comes from. Listed below are some of the sources of carbon monoxide.

  • Unvented kerosene and gas space heaters
  • Leaking chimneys and furnaces
  • Back-drafting from furnaces
  • Water heaters
  • Wood stoves
  • Fireplaces
  • Gas stoves
  • Generators and other gasoline-powered equipment
  • Automobile exhaust from attached garages
  • Tobacco smoke

High concentrations of carbon monoxide indoors are primarily caused by incomplete oxidation during combustion in gas ranges and unvented gas or kerosene heaters.

Poorly installed appliances like furnaces and heaters are also significant causes of carbon monoxide. Malfunctioned appliances also contribute to increased levels of C.O. in the environment.

An improperly sized flue, blocked, disconnected, or leaking, ignites C.O.’s presence. Auto, truck, or bus exhaust from garages attached to the house, nearby roads, or parking areas is also a common cause of C.O. in the surrounding.

The Health Effects of Carbon Monoxide Exposure

Alarming, isn’t it? Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that at least 430 die in the U.S. yearly due to accidental carbon monoxide poisoning.

The same findings show that over 50,000 people in the U.S. visit the emergency department following accidental poisoning from the C.O. gas. This informs on how fatal carbon monoxide can be.

KEY FACTS: The red blood cells are responsible for transporting oxygen to the various organs in the body. However, these cells absorb carbon monoxide faster than oxygen.

If the C.O. levels in a surrounding are high, the red blood cells will absorb the poisonous gas. The CO will, in turn, displace and replace the oxygen your body organs so badly need. This will lead to various health effects on the human body.

Below is a discussion of the effects of carbon monoxide exposure on humans.

The effects of carbon monoxide may vary depending on the concentration levels and the exposure’s longevity.

  • Neurological Damage

Medical research asserts that chronic exposure to carbon monoxide results in mild neurological effects. This effect is associated with the significant competition between oxygen and carbon monoxide for binding sites on the hemoglobin. 

As a result, the amount of oxygen and its transportation in the body is reduced. An expert team from the World Health Organization confirms that high C.O. levels lead to loss of consciousness which then causes long-lasting neurological damage.

  • Changes in Intellectual Functioning

Accordingly, short-term exposure to high concentrations of carbon monoxide changes intellectual functioning. Luckily, the medical research also noted that this effect is temporary as victims assessed reported complete recovery of mental functioning post-exposure.

  • Effects on the brain

Research also shows that prolonged exposure (days and months) to low levels of carbon monoxide may subtly affect the brain. This is manifested through symptoms such as headaches and malaise. These symptoms are temporary as they would stop when exposure to the poisonous gas also stops.

  • Heart Failure

Epidemiological studies show that besides C.O. depriving your body organs of oxygen, it also causes direct damage to the heart muscles. With a limited amount of oxygen in the body, the heart’s pumping capacity is also reduced, thus permanently impairing its cardiac function.

This is a critical health implication, given that heart disease is among the leading causes of death in the U.S. and the U.K. The elderly are at a higher risk of this effect than the rest.

  • Difficulties in Exercising

Further studies also show that low levels of carbon monoxide adversely affect patients with heart diseases during exercise. A body of a person with heart disease already has a compromised ability to respond to the increased demand for oxygen during exercise or stress. Since carbon monoxide reduces the amount of oxygen delivered to the heart muscles, one is bound to experience chest pains and decreased exercise tolerance.

  • Low Birth Weight

Pregnant mothers and unborn babies are also at a higher risk of carbon monoxide poisoning than other people. Studies depicted a correlation between maternal exposure to carbon monoxide and low birth weight.

The effect of C.O. exposure on an infant’s birth weight is directly compared to the effect of a mother smoking a pack of cigarettes daily during her pregnancy.

Also, inhaling carbon monoxide during pregnancy will negatively affect the child’s mental development. In extreme scenarios, the mother may suffer a miscarriage if they inhale high C.O. levels during pregnancy.

What Is Carbon Monoxide?
Signs of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Summary: The health effects of carbon monoxide exposure are determined by the short or long-term exposure length.

Common health effects include headaches, dizziness, loss of consciousness, seizures, confusion, and poor muscle coordination.

It also causes low birth weight and developmental problems in children. Neurological damage and increased rate of heart failure can also result from carbon monoxide exposure.

People at a higher health risk of carbon monoxide exposure include the elderly, pregnant mothers, children, and infants, and people with pre-existing health conditions such as heart disease, anemia, or any respiratory difficulties.

Now that we know how lethal carbon monoxide gas can be, wouldn’t it help if we knew how to prevent its poisoning? Here are some tips on how to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning:

  • Avoid using a gas range or an oven to heat a home.
  • Running vehicles are significant sources of carbon monoxide gas. Never leave the motor running in a vehicle parked in an enclosed or partially enclosed place like a garage.
  • Avoid running a generator, pressure washer, or gasoline-powered engine within an enclosed space such as a basement or garage. Please don’t do it even with the windows and doors open. Only use if the equipment is professionally installed and vented. Also, ensure that your vents and flues do not have debris. Debris will block ventilation lines.
  • Avoid running a motor vehicle, generator, pressure washer, or gasoline-powered engine less than 20 feet from ventilation. The exhaust can vent into an enclosed space, increasing the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning and its related side effects.
  • Avoid using a charcoal grill, hibachi, lantern, or portable camping stove within a home, tent, or camper.
  • If you are experiencing extreme weather conditions, avoid the temptation of improvising house appliances to solve the situation. Instead, seek shelter with friends or at a community shelter.
  • Lastly, have a carbon monoxide detector. This is the most effective way of protecting yourself from C.O. poisoning. The detector will alert you if the C.O. concentrations in the environment are higher than usual. This will allow you to take preventive measures before it’s too late.

Most importantly, immediately consult a health care professional as soon as you suspect carbon monoxide poisoning.

What are the Sources of Exposure to Carbon Monoxide?

Everyone is at risk of inhaling carbon monoxide. Places with heavy traffic jams generally have higher C.O. levels than those with low traffic. If your house is located along such a road, you will likely be exposed to the deadly gas.

A tobacco smoker has a higher likelihood of carbon monoxide exposure. You can also get gas exposure if you are a passive tobacco smoker.

Generators are beneficial during a power outage. However, it will expose you to carbon monoxide if it is not adequately vented, especially if you use it in a home or a building. Using gas grills, hibachis, or charcoal grills indoors will also expose you to dangerous C.O. levels.

You can also be exposed to C.O. when running your vehicle.

Recreational watercraft and boats will expose you to high C.O. levels.

Gasoline-powered small engines and tools like compressors or pressure washers also emit high C.O. levels over a short period.

How Is Carbon Monoxide Detected?

People widely believe that silence is golden. However, it is not golden when dealing with carbon monoxide, as it will quickly kill you. The colorless, odorless, and tasteless nature of the carbon monoxide gas makes it quite elusive to monitor.

For this reason, homeowners heavily depend on carbon monoxide detectors placed throughout their houses to alert them to the presence of the poisonous gas before it becomes hazardous.

It also gives them enough time to leave the house during a dangerous situation and consequently seek help from the emergency line.

Detailed below is how the carbon monoxide detectors work:

Carbon monoxide detectors are specially designed to measure the concentration of the C.O. gas in parts per million (PPM). They will alarm if the concentration has been in the air for a while that it becomes a problem. If the gas stays for many hours, a concentration of 70 ppm will trigger the alarm. 

The CO detector device is simply made. It contains a plastic chamber that is approximately 23 inches in diameter. This chamber contains several parts that work together to send an alert upon detecting the lethal gas.

These components will vary, depending on the manufacturing company. Let us look at some general parts you’d find in most C.O. detectors:

  • A tiny silicon microchip. This chip is connected to a copper-wired, integrated electronic circuit panel that serves as the unit’s base. Its function is to send a “what to do” electronic charge to other parts of the device.
  • Light-Emitting Diodes (LEDs). This part will inform you that the unit is functioning or when the batteries are malfunctioning using lights. Other digital detectors contain a liquid crystal display (LCD) panel that showcases a readout of the C.O. concentration at a place.
  • Wires. The wires on the device connect to the building’s electrical system or a battery, both of which are used to power the unit.
  • A test/reset button. You will use this button to verify that your alarm is functioning as expected.
  • A detection chamber. This part houses the C.O. gas sensor, which identifies and measures the concentration of C.O. gas within the atmosphere. The gas is measured in parts per million.

Also, the detectors come in several types, which employ different methods in determining the amount of C.O. in the atmosphere.

The most common carbon monoxide detectors function through electrochemical sensors. These sensors contain electrodes submerged in an electrically conductive solution typically described as electrolytes. 

The detector has a gas-permeable chamber that allows the penetration of the C.O. gas. Once it enters the chamber, a chemical reaction will occur, which increases the electrical current passing through the electrolyte.

The detector will sense the carbon monoxide molecules on a specified increase in the electrical current, thus sounding the alarm.

We also have metal oxide sensors that act almost similarly to electrochemical sensors. However, unlike the latter, which uses a chemical solution (an electrolyte), metal oxide sensors rely on circuitry. 

Once the carbon monoxide gas enters the sensor’s chip, the material’s resistance to electricity flow goes down. It reduces to the degree that depends on the concentration of the chemicals present in the air.

There’s also an interesting approach to how the detectors function. This approach is inspired by hemoglobin, the red coloring matter in the blood cells that transports oxygen through the body tissues and organs. 

The hemoglobin readily absorbs carbon monoxide once detected in the surroundings. When the carbon dioxide (or oxygen) chemically attaches to the hemoglobin, it significantly brightens, thus changing blood color from a dark cherry to a red.

This is precisely how some carbon monoxide detectors operate. It mimics this effect using a gel that would change the color as it absorbs the deadly C.O. gas. A light sensor would then track the gel’s color, indicating the presence of carbon monoxide by that time.

Thank goodness there are several technologies to choose from when choosing a carbon monoxide detector. As long as your detector is fully functional, it eliminates the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.

For this reason, the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) encourages installing specific detectors based on instructions issued by manufacturers.

Generally, they recommend installing the detector in central locations outside all sleeping areas and on every house level.

Heads Up: All sensors have a limited lifespan which varies depending on the manufacturing companies. Ensure you replace them as instructed for optimum protection against the deadly gas.

Does Carbon Monoxide Smell Like Rotten Eggs?

As we said earlier, carbon monoxide is a scentless, colorless, and tasteless gas, popularly described as a “silent killer.” These properties make the gas more deadly than others as it will seep into a room without being detected, sometimes until it is too late. Therefore, no, carbon monoxide does not smell like rotten eggs.

However, do not ignore the smell of “rotten eggs” since it indicates a severe problem in your house. A natural gas leak and an escaping sewer gas are considered the primary causes of a rotten egg smell. 

Let’s look into Natural Gas.

All natural gas and propane pipeline gas in Connecticut has a smell. Like carbon monoxide, natural gas also has no odor. However, gas companies purposefully add the harmless mercaptan chemical to give it its distinctive smell of a “rotten egg.” 

Here is some interesting historical information on why companies add mercaptan to natural gas:

The smell of a rotten egg in natural gas is directly associated with what happened in Texas 84 years ago. There was a newly built school filled with 5th through 12th graders in New London. In the cold winter, the school officials piped in natural gas from the oil fields to provide heat. (A move that was applauded as it saved taxpayers about $300 each). 

However, a leak happened, and it went undetected. As a result, 300 lives were lost, with most victims being children. This led to critical legislative changes that mandated the addition of malodorants on all-natural gas for commercial and industrial use. This practice is today an industry standard. 

Therefore, the next time you sense the smell of a rotten egg, it is a possible indicator of a leaking gas in your home, which could pose a danger to you and your loved ones.

The following are essential tips on what you should do once you smell natural gas in your home:

  • Before anything, get a phone away from the location of the smell and call your local gas company immediately. If the smell is too strong, consider making the call from outside. They will immediately respond by ensuring the area is safe under no charges. Meanwhile, do the following as you wait for the gas company to respond:
  • Keep everyone away from the area with the smell. Evacuate the premises and regroup at a safe place with your people. This helps limit gas exposure and keep you at a safe distance between you and your home if the gas leak ignites. Also, remember to leave the windows and doors open on your way out. This will allow the gas to vent outside.
  • Avoid smoking or striking matches, as it may cause a fire hazard.
  • Avoid lighting any candles.
  • Do not flip light switches on and off.
  • Avoid using a telephone.
  • Avoid using electrical equipment or lights that could spark in the affected area. 
  • Do not adjust thermostats or appliance controls.
  • Do not use elevators.
  • If there is any open flame, put it out immediately.
  • If the gas odor comes from outside, resist the urge to locate the source yourself! Call professionals. Also, avoid positioning or operating vehicles or powered equipment in areas where the gas might have leaked.

Doubtlessly, natural gas has several benefits in our daily lives; it’s almost impossible to imagine life without it. It powers several consumer products like furnaces, fireplaces, clothes dryers, and stoves.

However, natural gas can build into an explosive concentration if it leaks. This high concentration can kill vegetation and trees, cause explosions and fires, and release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. 

Now that we know its danger, it’s important to learn safety tips on natural gas. Let’s discuss some of them:

1. Learn to Detect the Signs and Symptoms of Natural Gas Leaks in your Home.

The smell of rotten eggs. This is one of the most apparent signs of a natural gas leak in your home. The stronger the smell, the more likely a gas leak has occurred. Older gases may produce a slight smell; however, those made in the last 15 years produce no smell unless there is an issue.

Hissing Sounds. Gas leaks in pipes or appliances can produce hissing noises, even if the appliance has been turned off. Ensure you check your appliances regularly and listen for any hissing noises.

Presence of air bubbles outside your home. Natural gas can occur anywhere, including in underground piping outside our homes.

This will reflect through bubbles in standing water, including puddles and mud. This usually indicates that natural gas disperses through the soil and into the surrounding air.

Unexplained Death of Plants. A dead or stunted plant outside your home could indicate a natural gas leak, especially if you are sure you are taking good care of the plants.

Natural gas’ presence often prevents the plants’ roots from absorbing oxygen, hence the wilting. Natural gas also causes tree leaves to be smaller than expected. It also wilts plants and causes yellow patches on the grass.

Look out for the physical signs of natural gas poisoning. If exposed to high levels of natural gas for a long time, you will start experiencing symptoms such as dizziness, fatigue, irregular breathing, severe headaches, memory loss, low concentration, nausea, loss of consciousness, and suffocation. 

Best seek help from a health care professional if you suspect you are experiencing natural leak poisoning.

Higher-than-normal gas usage. If the gas consumption rate in your home goes up, it could be because of a gas leak.

2. Regularly Inspect Devices and Appliances that use Natural Gas.

Have a licensed professional regularly inspect your gas appliance for any possible leaks. If you do it yourself, read the manufacturer’s instructions for each appliance to understand what to check and how often to use it. Check the pilot light, a common feature in gas appliances. Ensure the flame is always small and blue.

3. Keep Children Away from Natural Gas Sources

Keep children safe from stoves, heaters, and other potential sources of natural gas. It would also help if you taught children how to identify the distinctive smell of natural gas alongside the symptoms of exposure. Also, educate them on what to do in the event of a leak at home.

4. Install Natural Gas and Carbon Monoxide Detectors in Your Home

Slow gas leaks may not produce enough gas for humans to detect them. Those with diminished smell may also fail to detect large gas leaks. This is why we advise homeowners to use natural gas detectors to alert them in case of a gas leak.

While carbon monoxide detectors do not detect a natural gas leak, they will inform you when other appliances are not correctly burning natural gas, kerosene, or other fossil fuels.

5. Learn How to Shut off Natural Gas in Your Home

All homes that use natural gas have a gas shutoff valve outside the house. If you cut off the gas supply, it will prevent the gas from escaping, preventing increased exposure. Ensure everyone knows where the shutoff valve is located and how to use it to respond to a potential gas leak.

TIP: Extreme weather events can compromise the safety of your gas lines. Therefore, keep a close eye and nose for leaks during extreme climatic conditions. If you are aware of an impending hurricane, consider turning off the natural gas valve for better protection.

Takeaway:  The smell of rotten gas does not indicate the presence of carbon monoxide, as C.O. gas is scentless. Instead, it indicates the presence of a natural gas leak. Once you smell the rotten eggs, evacuate the room, call your local gas suppliers and have them investigate the leakage. 

How Do You Check for Carbon Monoxide Without a Detector?

Even though the colorless and odorless nature of carbon monoxide makes it challenging to detect in a home, several warnings you can observe might help keep you safe.

The beeping of a carbon monoxide detector is the most obvious indicator of the presence of the deadly gas. However, you can also detect its presence without the detector by observing the following:

  • Presence of Black or Yellow Stains around Gas Boilers, Stoves, or Fireplaces.

The sooty appearance indicates a loose connection, and carbon monoxide could seep into your home. You may also notice black soot marks on a gas fireplace’s front covers or panels.

  • Smoke Buildup when using the Fireplace

When using the Fireplace, smoke buildup usually indicates that the chimney is not venting as correctly as it should. Smoke will increase the C.O. concentrations in your home; hence, it will be perilous if you leave the fire to burn.

Usually, a clean chimney will have an upward draft evident when you open the flue. However, if you cannot feel this draft, it warns of increased levels of C.O. buildup. You can also notice this even when not burning fuel.

  • Yellow Flames on Gas Appliances

Gas appliances will produce blue flames when in use under normal circumstances. However, the presence of yellow or orange flames indicates a malfunction in the gas appliance. Also, if the burners are not fully igniting, it signifies an issue with the gas that could cause a potential C.O. buildup.

  • Pilot Lights Frequently Blowing Out

Pilot lights are those flames on your furnaces, gas stoves, and water heaters that are constantly burning to prevent gas from leaking into your home. If you notice that the pilot light does not keep burning, or if it flickers, then it is a sign that C.O. has built up in the area around it.

Also, if the pilot light flame is blue, it is a possible sign that it is not burning gas as required and that C.O. is building up in the air.

  • Condensation Buildup on Windows Near Gas Appliances

The droplets on the windows insides of a room with a gas appliance could indicate that the appliance is not venting as it should and that C.O. is building up in your home.

How Long Does Carbon Monoxide Last in the Body?

The red blood cells are responsible for transporting oxygen throughout your body’s tissues and organs. However, we mentioned that it readily absorbs carbon monoxide more than oxygen.

Therefore, when C.O. is within an atmosphere, and you come into contact with it, it will rapidly enter all your body parts, including the brain, heart, and muscles. It may pose damaging effects, others as fatal as death.

The good news is that the gas will leave your body through the lungs as you breathe out. However, the exhalation will not immediately eliminate carbon monoxide from your body.

It may take about twenty-four hours/full day for carbon monoxide to leave your body.

Final Thoughts

You would imagine that a gas as deadly as carbon monoxide will alert you of its presence through its distinct smell. If these are your thoughts, you are dead wrong! Carbon monoxide gas has no smell! It is not only colorless and tasteless but also odorless. 

The gas poses serious health threats to humans. It causes neurological damage, heart disease, causes miscarriage and affects the brain development of a fetus. 

You’d want to look out for the warning signs of the presence of C.O. to prevent potential damage. The most effective preventive measure is installing a C.O. detector which will alert you when the gas levels are higher than usual.

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