How to Prevent Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Okay, I tried, but there is just no way to make carbon monoxide interesting. Read it anyway, because it’s good for you: you need to know this stuff. Like eating your vegetables. Every one of us encounters carbon monoxide on an almost daily basis, because it is ubiquitous and sneaky. We need to know where it comes from, how to avoid it, the symptoms it causes, and what to do if we or our children are exposed.

Carbon monoxide (CO: one carbon, one oxygen) is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, and initially nonirritating gas produced largely by partial oxygenation of carbon based fuels. Complete oxygenation would produce carbon dioxide (CO2), which we exhale every time we breathe. Plants use that to make us more oxygen.

CO can accumulate in poorly ventilated, enclosed areas. When we breathe in large amounts, the CO binds with the hemoglobin in our blood and forms carboxyhemoglobin. Carboxyhemoglobin circulates through our bloodstreams like the regular stuff, but it does not like to release its oxygen to our brains, hearts, muscles, and organs. We suffocate while still breathing the air around us.

Aristotle, who lived around 300 BC, was the first person to note that coal fumes led to “a heavy head and death.” In ancient times, it was one way criminals were killed: they were locked in a small room with smoldering coals.

It is thought that CO is to blame for some haunted houses: its accumulation can cause hallucinations, disorientation, and delirium.

Oddly, a little CO can be a good thing: it is an anti-inflammatory, encourages growth of nerves and blood vessels, communicates between nerves, and may have some function in long term memory. Very little. Don’t go looking for it.

Statistics on CO poisoning vary significantly with who’s reporting them. It is considered to be the leading cause of poisoning injury and death worldwide. Poison help lines in the US report about 15,000 calls a year, with an estimated 70 deaths. Approximately 40,000 people seek medical care for exposures, and CO accounts for around 15,000 ER visits each year. The CDC estimates more than 500 deaths per year overall in the US, with the largest percentage being in the under 5 age group. More poisonings occur in the winter (gas heaters) and after disasters (generators).

CO is created by burning carbon-based fuels (wood, gasoline, diesel, propane, kerosene, lamp oil), by smoking (tobacco is a carbon based fuel), and by exposure to methylene chloride (degreasers, solvents, paint removers). Don’t smoke (so many reasons), and use degreasers, solvents and paint removers only in well-ventilated areas. Appliances that can produce CO need to be maintained, inspected annually, and well ventilated. Some of the most common ones are:

  • Forced air furnaces
  • Wood stoves/fireplaces (open that flume!)
  • Space heaters (non-electric)
  • Gas water heaters
  • Gas stoves
  • Gas dryers
  • Anything with a pilot light
  • Barbecues, Hibachis
  • Automobiles (never run them in an enclosed space!)
  • Generators
  • Fuel powered tools (if you put gas in it, don’t use it indoors)
  • Boats (don’t use those indoors either)

Symptoms of acute (not chronic) CO poisoning include effects on the brain (dizziness, headache, confusion, lethargy, drowsiness, irritability, irrational behavior), lungs (shortness of breath) and heart (palpitations, paleness). If exposure continues, loss of consciousness and death will follow.

Chronic exposure to lower levels of CO can result in headaches, depression, confusion, memory loss, nausea, and permanent neurologic damage.

Pregnant women, fetuses, and children are especially sensitive. As with most poisonings, children’s small bodies are more sensitive, their higher metabolic rate brings it into their bodies more quickly, and they don’t have the ability to escape.

People with lung, blood, or heart disease, like asthma or anemia, are also more susceptible.

Of note is that CO damage from methylene chloride can last twice as long as that from burning carbon based fuels, because it is stored in our tissues.

Overall, it is a good idea to prevent any exposure to CO. Maintain and inspect those appliances, and make sure they are vented. Open the flume when you have a fire in the winter. Never barbecue or use a hibachi indoors. Throw out the cigarettes, because people who smoke have levels of CO in their blood streams several times higher than non-smokers. Perhaps most important, since you can’t smell this stuff, install CO detectors near every area where people sleep. Many newer fire alarms contain CO detectors, making this even more convenient.

If you are exposed, go outside into clean air. If you are having any symptoms (light-headedness, shortness of breath, seeing ghosts…) seek medical attention. They will give you oxygen and monitor your heart and brain.

Yay! You made it through, even the dreaded chemistry. Not as bad as you thought, right? Knowledge rules!

How to Stay Safe Around Water

Drowning is probably every pediatrician’s worst nightmare. It is currently the fifth leading cause of accidental death. An average of 700 children drown each year: about 2 each day. Most are under 4; 80% are male. For every death, there are 5 more who drowned but survived, commonly with irreversible damage to their brains.

Infants and toddlers drown in bath tubs, buckets, toilets – all you need is about an inch of water, just enough to cover their nose and mouth. Older children drown in pools, rivers, lakes, and oceans.

Never, never, never leave any child alone for even a moment near open water, whether it is an ocean, a bathtub, or a water bucket. All it takes is one moment of inattention for a child to slip away. If there is open water, you need to be within touching distance and focused on your child. The story I have heard over and over is, “We were right there, just talking, but nobody noticed anything until we realized he was gone.” Keep your kids in sight, and don’t let yourself get distracted. Be especially careful at the end of the day, as the water empties and people are gathering up their belongings and leaving. Children will want to swim just a minute more, or will attempt to go back for that last toy floating in the water.

Pools should be fenced in and closed off with a self-latching gate at the end of the day, and all the toys should be put away. Life vests are fabulous for a parent’s mental health and relaxation (swimmies and floaties are not life jackets). Life preservers and a shepherd’s crook should be placed obviously nearby wherever kids are swimming.

Sign your kids up for swimming lessons, even if you are afraid. A middle schooler or teen will never admit to their friends that they don’t know how to swim. They will fake it, sometimes unsuccessfully. Don’t, however, trust a young child to remember his or her swimming lessons when they need them. If they are startled or scared, they will forget everything they learned and just sink to the bottom.

Know what to look for. In real life, drowning does not look like it does in the movies. It is not impossible to miss someone drowning right in front of you if you do not know what you are seeing. They do not shout for help and wave their arms. They tire, and panic. A drowning child might never make a sound, but quietly slip under the water. An older child might keep themselves above the water for a while, but their head might be low in the water, with their mouth at water level, or perhaps with their head tilted back. Their eyes might be blank or closed. They will sometimes hang vertically in the water without paddling their legs, or appear to paddle with no purposeful movement. A drowning person is very easy to miss if you are not vigilant; and easy to help if you are.

Somebody should know CPR—why not you? Your local fire department or hospital will have classes. Knowledge and the ability to act can save a life.

Swimming is a necessary skill, fun, and excellent exercise; it is also a time for close observation and care.