News from Ohio State University

Experts on the News: Public urged to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning

During winter, carbon monoxide poisoning, often considered the “silent killer,” becomes an increased risk. With many growing more reliant on heaters to shield themselves from the aggressive cold, The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center is warning the public about the dangers of the gas.

“Carbon monoxide is the No. 1 accidental poisoning problem in the United States and in the world,” said Dr. Sam Hawkins, an emergency medicine physician. “[It] is very serious, and it’s very dangerous.”

CO is a colorless, odorless gas that when inhaled can lead to a myriad of problems, including headaches, nausea, cardiac arrest and possible death. Humans breathe in CO all the time; however, it becomes dangerous once it reaches high enough levels.

Hawkins said that the gas is formed during any combustion involving carbon material, such as house fires, wood burning and in portable heaters. If this happens in an unvented area, CO levels can increase to hazardous levels.

When the gas is inhaled, it can cause hypoxia (low oxygen in blood) and inflammatory effects in the body’s cells, starving the heart of oxygen and leading to major problems.

When treating victims of CO poisoning, Hawkins said the main objective is to provide them with oxygen. This allows the body to get rid of the gas and help with the hypoxia. More severe exposure might require hyperbaric medicine, which uses 100% oxygen at a high pressure to increase oxygen in the human body.

To avoid CO poisoning, Hawkins says it’s imperative to have a functional carbon monoxide detector in your home. Since the gas is both odorless and colorless, the only way to prevent accidental poisoning is by installing the device. This risk becomes increasingly dangerous during the winter months.

“If people don’t have their CO detectors up to date, they may never know that there was a leak,” he said.

If you live in a multilevel home, Hawkins suggests installing multiple detectors and advises checking their functionality at least once every six months. CO detectors should be available at local hardware stores.