All About Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

By Gordon S. Johnson, Jr.


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Winter is the time of year when the number of cases of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning goes up and up. Every day we read about another family that has been overcome by carbon monoxide, the most deadly toxin on the planet. Every year, as many as 40,000 people seek medical attention in the United States as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning. Carbon Monoxide (CO) poisoning is believed to be responsible for more than half of the poisoning deaths world wide. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control, US Government) reports that more than 2,500 Americans die each year from carbon monoxide damage.

Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning:

Exposure to carbon monoxide can result in a variety of symptoms from headaches, weakness, lethargy, nausea, confusion, disorientation and seizure to fatality. The symptoms are often mistaken for flu or food poisoning. Persons with existing heart conditions may experience increased chest pain.

WINTER WARNING for Carbon Monoxide Exposure:

The winter is a particularly significant time for such exposure, as it is the time that furnaces and boilers are running overtime, to keep our homes warm. As the symptoms described above mimic so many other conditions, particularly flu, Emergency Room doctors may not properly diagnose this condition in its early stages and it may not even be considered in cardiac cases where it was the primary cause.

Education and awareness about the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning are vital. The Partnership for Clean Indoor Air estimates that 2 billion people worldwide are at risk and that 1.6 million premature deaths occur worldwide yearly, mainly among women and children, due to the use of biomass fuels indoors for heating and cooking.

Carbon monoxide poisoning can occur in any situation where a person is exposed to an incomplete burning of fossil fuel. Thus, automobile exhaust, defective furnaces or heaters, house fires, wood-burning stoves, and propane-fueled equipment such as portable camping stoves can cause CO poisoning. Other engines which can create dangerous CO include forklifts, portable generators, and gasoline-powered tools such as high-pressure washers, concrete cutting saws, power trowels, floor buffers, and welders. These poisonings occur most often when this type of equipment is used in buildings or semi-enclosed spaces.

Accidental carbon monoxide poisoning should never occur. If it does, someone did something wrongful and should be held responsible by the Courts.The exception of course is suicide and attempted suicide.

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning can be Subtle.

The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning may not be as obvious as most people think. We commonly hear stories of the family that is overcome by a faulty furnace, found dead or in a coma. But less profound cases of carbon monoxide exposure can also result in severe disability or even death. Often times, the first symptoms of CO toxicity show up as flu like symptoms: headache, nausea, vomiting, dizziness and blurred vision. For this reason, exposure to CO can confused with flu, depression, chronic fatigue syndrome, and migraine or other headaches.

Delayed Onset of Severe Symptoms after Carbon Monoxide Poisoning.

One of the most disturbing and unexpected aspects of carbon monoxide poisoning is the delayed onset of Neurological symptoms. Even more so than with other types of damage to the brain, this type of damage is an elongated process. Behavioral and neurological deficits can arise or worsen two to 40 days after the exposure. Often times a patient is discharged from the hospital after initial evaluation, to have a severe relapse of symptoms, from escalating pathology. The toxic effects of CO poisoning continue to attack the brain, for many weeks after the initial exposure. This syndrome, sometimes called DNS, can materialize as almost any neurological or behavioral symptom, including memory loss, confusion, seizures, urinary incontinence, loss of bowel function, disorientation, hallucinations, psychosis and balance and dizziness.

Common causes of Carbon Monoxide poisoning include:

  • Furnaces/HVAC Units
  • Space Heaters
  • Hotels/Resorts
  • Boating
  • Aviation/Airplanes
  • Air Crashes
  • Warehouse Workers
  • Propane Devices
  • Generators

PREVENTION: Smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors can make a difference in your home. But if such devices are not properly maintained they won’t make a difference.

One of the most serious situations for carbon monoxide poisoning is in space heaters in apartments or hotel rooms. Stand alone heating units also include on the wall heating systems that you find in a high percentage of hotel rooms.

When in a hotel room with an older type system check to see if there is a carbon monoxide detector in the room. Travelling with a portable carbon monoxide detector is a good plan as only a few states have a law requiring CO detectors in hotels, and none in all rooms. Hotels

WARNING: Older ski resorts have a poor safety record for carbon monoxide poisoning so be particularly cautious when staying at ski resorts.


Gordon Johnson

Attorney Gordon Johnson is one of the nations leading brain injury advocates. He is Past-Chair of the TBILG, a national group of more than 150 brain injury advocates. He has spoken at numerous brain injury seminars and is the author of some of the most read brain injury web pages on the internet.

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