Exposure to carbon monoxide interferes with the blood's ability to carry oxygen to body tissues and vital organs. When carbon monoxide is inhaled, it combines with hemoglobin in the red blood cells, which greatly diminishes hemoglobin's oxygen-carrying capacity. Hemoglobin will bind with carbon monoxide 300 times faster than with oxygen. As a result, small amounts of carbon monoxide can dramatically reduce hemoglobin's ability to transport oxygen, essentially suffocating the victim.
Common symptoms of carbon monoxide exposure are headache, nausea, rapid breathing, weakness, exhaustion, dizziness, and confusion. Hypoxia (severe oxygen deficiency) due to acute carbon monoxide poisoning may result in reversible neurological effects, or it may result in long-term (and possibly delayed) irreversible neurological (brain damage) or cardiological (heart damage) effects.
Carbon monoxide deaths are more common on the mainland in cold climates, where people run space heaters in their residences if their power gets turned off. This allows carbon monoxide to accumulate in the house and the people die in their sleep. Another way people get carbon monoxide poisoning is staying in vehicles that are running but not moving, such as when stuck in a snow storm. The exhaust gets blocked with snow and carbon monoxide enters the vehicles interior. While snow is not a problem here, your vehicle still poses a danger in warm weather. The story below happened last year on Oahu’s north shore.
Two people were taken to local hospitals in critical condition Saturday afternoon after they were found unconscious in a stranded vehicle at Kaena Point. According to HFD, a fisherman noticed the Jeep Wrangler on a trail popular with offroad drivers and later investigated when he noticed the vehicle had not moved.
The fisherman found the vehicle in a ditch with its engine running, windows rolled up, and muffler submerged in water. He removed both people -- a 33-year-old man and a 25-year-old woman -- from the vehicle and performed CPR on the man, who had no pulse and was not breathing, apparently from carbon monoxide poisoning.
Other witnesses called 911 and assisted with the woman, who was unconscious but breathing. One of the witnesses drove the man to a nearby area where Emergency Medical Services personnel met them and continued CPR on the man. An HFD helicopter was used to transport the woman off the trail. The man died later at the hospital and the woman was on life support.
You can prevent carbon monoxide poisoning at work or at home by doing the following:
- Set up fuel powered equipment downwind from workers
- Use equipment in well ventilated spaces, or add blowers
- Shut off equipment when not in use
- Perform air monitoring when using fuel powered equipment or an acetylene torch in areas with little ventilation, such as trenches, manholes, etc.
- Keep acetylene and oxygen tanks out of confined spaces, only torch and hose may be taken inside
- Do not use ovens or gas ranges to heat your home.
- Never leave a lawn mower, equipment or a vehicle running in an enclosed space.
- Do not remain inside of a running vehicle that is stuck in mud, water or snow, the blocked exhaust can back up into the passenger compartment.
- Have a carbon monoxide alarm in your home. Check for poisoning symptoms and clear out of area immediately if someone is experiencing symptoms.
Carbon Monoxide Poisoning should be treated right away. Get to fresh air immediately. Open doors and windows. Turn off combustion equipment and leave the area. A loss or reduction of consciousness should be treated at an emergency room. Be sure to tell the physician that you suspect CO poisoning.