Home & Garden Columns
Killing yourself isn’t as easy as it used to be. You used to be able to get in your 8,000 pound Buick, pull into the garage, tune in KNBR and slowly pass into unconsciousness to the strains of “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” as the disappointments of the world faded softly into nothingness. Wow, that was dark. But it’s a reality that carbon monoxide has been widely used to end it all for many decades, maybe a hundred years.
The sad thing for me is that a whole lot of people who have no such intentions end up dying each year as a result of this odorless and colorless gas. By the way, cars are now so efficient that you aren’t going to have an easy time ended it all by running your car in the garage. The catalytic converter has largely put an end to that.
Carbon monoxide, or CO is a sister molecule to carbon dioxide but has some very different traits. The one that should concern us the most is the fact that it bonds with Hemoglobin very effectively and strongly. It also hangs around for a-long time and is cumulative as exposure increases so that the longer you hang out in an environment with a source of CO, the more build-up you get.
By bonding with hemoglobin on the surface of red-blood cells, the sites that would normally grab oxygen are all filled up like the spaces on a train. The train leaves the station with less and less oxygen and eventually the brain and other organs asphyxiate despite your best effort to take full breaths. Your blood simply can’t grab and deliver oxygen.
CO bonds with hemoglobin 240 times more strongly than oxygen so it can take a while for it to leave. Therefore, it’s best to stay away from the stuff in the first place.
Now where does CO come from and how can we protect ourselves? First, CO is generally a faulty product of combustion. Coal fires are big sources of CO and this is why you never want to build a coal fire inside. Keep the BBQ outside, please.
Wood fires also produce significant amount of carbon monoxide, which is why you want to a) make sure your fireplace has a good healthy draft and b) make sure you don’t go to sleep with the fire still burning else you might not wake up for that 6 a.m. run with the dog.
But these aren’t the most common causes. Gas appliances which tend to run day and night and which are not operating properly are the most common causes of CO poisoning.
If you are currently using a kerosene heater in your living space, consider giving it up in favor of a vented gas heater such as a wall furnace or central heating system.
If your water heater isn’t venting to the outside, get some professional help and make sure the exhaust pipe that comes off the top of the unit is exiting the living space. Believe it or not, I see a couple of water heaters without any vent pipe attached to them each year. Many are in basements but these basements often interconnect with the living space thus polluting and endangering the occupants.
I was in a live-in attic many years ago that housed an unvented furnace. The furnace had a cold air intake (to pick up and pump this gas around the inside of the house) not far from the exhaust outlet and looked truly forboding. It turned out that the occupant had been bed-ridden and increasingly ill for some years without any clear cause.
After reading the report on this dangerous condition and putting two and two together she got a blood test and discovered that she has dangerously high levels of CO in her bloodstream.
She was suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning. CO poisoning won’t just kill you; it will, at lower levels make you sick (and you might not even know it). It affects the heart, lungs and brain and can rob you of your health and vitality at a range of levels.
At low levels it caused dizziness and headaches that can persist for as long as exposure continues (all winter when shared with the wrong furnace?). At higher levels it can cause a range of problems including tachycardia (rapid heart-rate), hypertension, skin lesions, speech or visual difficulties and even dementia.
Oxygen is a wonderful thing. I like it a lot and try to get some every day but when there’s something inside of me that keeps me from getting it to my brain and vital organs, I get cranky. That’s why I keep a CO tester in my house running at all times.
Carbon Monoxide testers have come down in price over the last few years and are now in the 20-30 range, well within reach of virtually everyone who pays a mortgage or rent.
I would strongly advise anyone who rents an apartment (or 40 apartments) to get them for their tenants and to service them regularly. Given the down-side, there’s no good reason not to get these little miracles. They also make a fabulous gift. Christmas is coming up and nothing says “I need you alive and oxygenated” like the gift of a CO tester. You can get them at almost every hardware store in the United States.
Now, in all my research, the one thing I couldn’t find was this. How many people in the United States (or the world for that matter) have low-level CO poisoning and don’t know it. How may have persistent headaches or dizziness but manage to get by, not realizing that they’re operating at 1/2 speed. They may also be slowly manifesting some of the other long range health effects. These people may also be infants, children or the elderly.
The woman I mentioned earlier, the one who got the blood-test, started doing better just as soon as she got the furnace vented properly. She got out of bed and started singing in clubs again and got her life back. So do as she did: get your furnace checked, get a CO tester and spend more time singing.