Why is carbon monoxide dangerous?


I have a ghost story to tell you.  I actually heard this story on a recent Halloween-themed This American Life episode.  The story is from a real account from a patient, written to her doctor on November 15, 1921.  It is an account of a strange series of events that she and her family experienced after moving into a new home.  The house was lit by gaslights rather than electricity, and was a rambling house with 3 floors, passageways, and servants’ quarters.  In other words, the perfect house for a haunting!

This is from Mrs. H’s account to her doctor:

“One morning, I heard footsteps in the room over my head.  I hurried up the stairs.  To my surprise, the room was empty.  I passed into the next and then into all the rooms on that floor, then to the floor above to find that I was the only person in that part of the house.  Sometimes after I’ve gone to bed, the noises from the store room are tremendous, as if furniture was being piled against the door, as if china was being moved about, and occasionally a long and fearful sigh or wail.

Sometimes as I walk along the hall, I feel as if someone was following me, going to touch me.  You can not understand it if you’ve not experienced it.  But it’s real.  As I was dressing for breakfast one morning, B, who is four years old, came to my room and asked me why I’d called him.  I told him I’d not called him.  With big and startled eyes he said, ‘Who was it then that called me?  Who made that pounding noise?'”

Mrs. H went on to tell her doctor about seeing a young woman at the foot of her bed during the night, about feeling the bedclothes jerked off of her during the night, and feeling the presence of the “unknown”.  She also told him that her family had all been feeling very tired and lethargic, and sometimes would have a temporary paralysis.  The plants in the home had even withered and died.

This all sounds quite scary, and it actually is very scary, but for a different reason than you might think.  As it turned out, carbon monoxide gas from the furnace was flooding the home instead of escaping up the chimney.   Mrs. H thought there were ghosts trying to get them out of the house.  Instead, carbon monoxide poisoning was producing all the effects of a haunting, including delusions, hallucinations, lethargy, and more!  Her family was in danger alright.  They were actually lucky to be alive!

What do you need to know about carbon monoxide?

Carbon monoxide (CO) gas is colorless, odorless, and tasteless.  You can be poisoned by it without being aware.  All people and animals are susceptible to CO poisoning, but it is especially dangerous for the very young, elderly, and people who are otherwise ill.

Carbon monoxide is produced whenever any fossil fuel is burned.  This includes gas, oil, kerosene, wood, or charcoal.  Chimneys, gas water heaters, furnaces, generators, grills, cars, and anything that uses fossil fuel all create CO, and therefore can put you at risk of CO poisoning if the exhaust is not vented properly.

What are the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning?

It can cause a wide range of symptoms and can kill you.  Here are some of the symptoms of CO poisoning:

  • Headaches
  • Hallucinations and confusion
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Feeling tired and/or sleepy
  • Chest pain and/or shortness of breath
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Death

What do you need to do to protect yourself and your family?

  • Schedule annual heating maintenance with a professional.
  • Make sure your furnace filter is changed regularly.
  • Make sure your chimney is cleaned and inspected regularly.  Don’t use a fireplace that isn’t drawing smoke upward adequately.
  • Make sure you have carbon monoxide detectors in your home in these places.
    • On every level of your home
    • 5 feet from the ground
    • Near all sleeping areas
    • In the kitchen, living/dining room, and the office
    • In attached garages
  • Do not install CO detectors too close to fuel-burning equipment, windows and vents, in direct sunlight, or in excessively humid areas such as the bathroom.

Here are some things that you should NEVER do:

  • Never run a generator inside the house or garage, or close to any open windows or doors.  Your generator should be about 25 feet away from your house.
  • Never burn coal indoors or bring the grill inside either!
  • Do NOT heat your home with your gas oven or stove top, even if you have no other heat source!
  • Never let your car idle in the garage, even if the garage doors are open.
  • If your car is in a snow bank (from sliding into a snow bank or excessive snow accumulation while it was parked), clear all snow from around the tail pipe before starting your car.

If you or your family has any symptoms of CO poisoning, you should see a doctor immediately.

If you want to listen to the story for yourself, or read it, follow this link https://www.thisamericanlife.org/319/and-the-call-was-coming-from-the-basement

If you have any more questions just Ask Hanna, our health advisors are here to help.

Dr. Anita Bennett MD – Health Tip Content Editor
Image: ©Shutterstock / Vitalii Vodolazskyi

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