Carbon Monoxide- what and why is it a problem

Carbon Monoxide (often shortened to its chemical nomenclature of CO) is gas. It is produced by the incmoplete combustion of carbon based fuels- carbon based fuels include wood, coal, gas and oil.

In normal situations carbon based fuels are perfectly safe to use, carbon monoxide forms when there is not enough oxygen present to allow complete combustion to form Carbon Dioxide (CO2).

The problem with CO is that it is colourless, tastless and odourless thus making it very hard to detect. To add to this it is toxic to humans and animals at higher concetrations. CO competetively binds (once breathed in) with haemaglobin in the blood stream in the place where oxygen would normally be transported. However, the formed carboxyhaemaglobin is not effective at delivering oxygen to the bodies tissues. So in cases on poisoning the body essentially becomes starved of oxygen.

The most commonly reported symptoms of CO poisoing may unfortuately resemble other types of medical issues, thus not identifying the problems early enough. Symptoms include headaches, nausea and vomitting, diziness and general fatigue or weakness. The only real way to diagnose potential CO poisoning is to measure CO levels (or the carboxyhaemaglobin versus haemaglobin ratio) in the blood stream.

The combination of its difficutly to detect by humans coupled with its non-specific clinical signs means that carbon monoxide is a slient killer. Have a look at the below checklist as this may help to pinpoint if it is CO is making you ill:

Other signs that could point to carbon monoxide poisoning:

  • Your symptoms only occur when you are at home
  • Your symptoms disappear or get better when you leave home and come back when you return 
  • Others in your household are experiencing symptoms (including your pets) and they appear at a similar time 

The good news is that carbon monoxide can be easily detected in most environments with a suitable carbon monoxide alarm!