Carbon Monoxide Misconceptions are Dangerous

Carbon monoxide misconceptions start with confusing CO2 for Carbon monoxide, but include failure to take the lethal threat of engine exhaust and alarms seriously.

By Rebecca Martin

One of the challenges facing society today is addressing the speed with which  misinformation and disinformation travels across social media platforms and online communications platforms. The rising phenomena of misinformation has become an impactful part of modern society far more quickly than any of us could have imagined. At its inception the internet promised us immediate and easy access to a vast network of knowledge. The phrase “I read it on the internet” quickly became an ironic cliché for the rising distrust on the part of the public. The platform for disseminating knowledge to the largest percentage of the population in history now is riddled with questions about its impact on everything from human rights to health. MIT conducted a study which found that:

There is a difference between misinformation and disinformation. Misinformation is the unintentional spread of false or inaccurate information while disinformation is the intentional spread of false information. Disinformation usually follows an agenda designed to mislead and create division.

In the same light, the internet is an amazing source of information. For instance, a PSA on my Facebook newsfeed about a rare, aggressive and deadly form of breast cancer stuck with me. A year later that information informed my decision to see a doctor. As a result, my cancer was caught in time. Yet, daily we are all inundated with information which might give rise to a new mantra to replace “buyer beware” with “reader beware”. Often, the innocent sharing of misinformation can be as damaging as the more notorious disinformation.

Carbon Monoxide Misconceptions can Cost Lives

This idea stuck in my mind after reading about a carbon monoxide incident in which the author repeatedly referred to carbon monoxide as CO2. This brought to mind the need to return to some of the basics of carbon monoxide information in order to proceed with absolute clarity about carbon monoxide, carbon monoxide poisoning and carbon monoxide safety.

The vast majority of us have carbon monoxide misconceptions, greatly underestimating the danger of what seem insignificant exposures. This time of year, newspapers regularly report on carbon monoxide incidents which include evacuations, injury and even death due to situations which are, for the large part, avoidable. The danger of carbon monoxide poisoning goes hand in hand with the use of fuel burning devices which are fundamental to our lives. Where fuel burns, the potential for toxic levels of carbon monoxide continues to exist. in spite of all efforts to inform the public of the dangers.

It occurred to me that it might not be enough to tell the public “carbon monoxide is dangerous”. I wondered how many are not quite sure what carbon monoxide is; how carbon monoxide differs from carbon dioxide and how the lack of a basic grasp of the difference between the two must lead to some major confusion about why they are being warned about the deadly nature of carbon monoxide to begin with.

Carbon monoxide creates serious morbidity and death

Shown here is Carbon monoxide, a two atom molecule. Carbon dioxide would have three atoms.

Carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide are both invisible, colorless, odorless and tasteless gases which contain both carbon and oxygen atoms. But while carbon dioxide features a carbon atom and two oxygen atoms bound together with a covalent bond to form a molecule, carbon monoxide features a carbon atom bound to an oxygen atom with a triple covalent bond. Covalent bonding refers to the sharing of electrons between atoms to form a particular molecule.

Carbon dioxide occurs naturally in our environment while carbon monoxide is primarily produced as a product of incomplete combustion. Carbon dioxide is nonflammable and will quickly extinguish a flame. Carbon monoxide is considered a flammable gas and will burn in the presence of flame.

We inhale oxygen and we exhale carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide is utilized by plant life which uses a process called photosynthesis to combine water, carbon dioxide and sunlight to grow. The byproduct of this process is the oxygen we breathe. The oceans also help control carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.

While carbon monoxide may be present in the atmosphere, in general it dissipates through a process called oxidation. Carbon monoxide released into the atmosphere takes several months to completely disperse. It eventually reacts with oxygen to form carbon dioxide. The natural occurrence of carbon monoxide in our atmosphere is from volcanic eruptions and forest fires.

The problem with carbon monoxide is when it becomes concentrated in a smaller space. This does not necessarily mean an enclosed space. The concentration of a gas in the air is measured in Parts Per Million (PPM). 100 PPM means that for every 999,900 molecules of air, there are 100 molecules of carbon monoxide.

carbon monoxide misconceptions include thinking opening a garage door is sufficient for a running engine.

Carbon monoxide misconceptions include  where to place Carbon monoxide detectors. Carbon monoxide does not rise like smoke, except during a fire.

Zero ppm is considered the safe level of carbon monoxide. Any exposure over time can be harmful. When detectors were first produced they were designed to alarm at very low levels of carbon monoxide. They were intentionally made less sensitive under pressure from fire departments when numerous alarms began to result in overwhelming responses. Today the standard detector will sound an alarm after detecting carbon monoxide in the air at 70 ppm in as little as an hour. The response time is shorter as higher levels are detected. At 400 ppm the alarm will respond in as little as 4 minutes. However, it is important to keep in mind that these numbers are the earliest an alarm will sound. The 70 ppm UL standard threshold allows for as long as 3 hours and 59 minutes before the alarm sounds.

Detectors themselves use several different methods to detect carbon monoxide in the air. Biomimetic[1] sensors reproduce the effect of carbon monoxide on the hemoglobin in the blood. Metal oxide semiconductors sensors use circuits applied to a silica chip. Electrochemical sensors use changes in the electrical current to detect carbon monoxide.

There are differences between the types of detectors used in home, nautical, and industrial applications. OSHA, for instance, prohibits exposure to more than 50 ppm during an 8 hour period. Nautical sensors take into account exposure to water and humidity which can result in a malfunction.

Countless times I have encountered references on the internet describing carbon monoxide as lighter than air and advising to take this into consideration when placing your carbon monoxide detector. Think of every movie you have ever seen in which a fire is represented and the scene depicts family members crawling from a burning building because the premise is the lower you are, the easier it is to breathe. This is true in the case of smoke, which though heavier than air, will rise if it is hot thus clearing the ground below. Carbon monoxide is only very slightly lighter than air and the only reason it will rise is if it is being carried on the warm air currents of the area it is in.

In your home, your fuel burning furnace is drawing air from the outside in and the resulting warm air is constantly moving upwards. This air flow has the potential to carry carbon monoxide to the upper levels of the home. Since most sleeping areas are located on the upper levels, minimum requirements often state that placement of carbon monoxide detectors be located near the sleeping areas of the home. Airflow is not something we normally think intensely about but many factors can change the typical pattern of airflow in the home. Inadequate airflow can alter how a home “breathes”. Interior fans, weather conditions and many other factors can alter traditional airflow as well.

The safest course is to place carbon monoxide detectors five feet from the ground in order to account for the normally rising warm air in your home. The optimum placement of detectors is to have a detector on every floor of your home. They should be placed close enough to all sleeping areas as to be heard by those sleeping. They should be placed near attached garages.

They should not be placed in close proximity to fuel burning devices, in direct sunlight, nor close to blowing air from fans, vents or open windows. They should also not be placed in areas of high humidity such as the bathroom.

Carbon Monoxide Misconceptions about Opening Windows

When your detector goes off, it is not giving you a warning. It is telling you it is time to evacuate the area and get to fresh air immediately. Once out of the area, then a call to 911 is in order and no one should return to the home until it is determined to be safe to return to the area. High levels of carbon monoxide can overwhelm a person very quickly leading to disorientation and ultimately death.

Often, levels present when emergency response arrives can be misleading. Windows may have been opened or appliances shut off. This in no way signals that there may not have been an impact on health and it is wise to be checked out at the emergency room to determine if there is potentially damage.  Children are more susceptible to damage from carbon monoxide exposure and because of their high respiration rate may give false results at the ER. It is important to be aware of changes in personality or behavior in the weeks and months following exposure.  Older people are also more susceptible to the effects from carbon monoxide.

It is important to understand that the detector has sounded in response to the presence of carbon monoxide and to not assume that because you are walking and talking that no damage has been done. Carbon monoxide has an impact on the cellular structure of our brains and other organs.  The full extent of damage is still not known. The impact is not always immediate and problems can arise down the road that can be very impactful on pre-exposure capabilities. See our page about Delayed Neurological Sequalae.

We talked about airflow in the home, the same is true of atmospheric conditions in a garage. We should all know that running a car in a closed garage is dangerous. But it is also a danger to people in the home as carbon monoxide can quickly enter the home and become lethal. You may also think it is safe to let the car run in the garage as long as the door is open. It can take just two minutes for lethal levels of carbon monoxide to build up in a garage with a vehicle running even if the door is open.

The same holds true for generators during a power outage. The garage is not a safe place to run a generator even if the garage door is open. Generators need to be placed 20 feet from the home with the exhaust pointed away from any air intake source, including windows and doors.

Is it safe to sit in a running vehicle with the windows open? No. The same types of backdrafts we encounter elsewhere can bring hazardous fumes into your vehicle. There are so many misconceptions about the benefits of letting your car idle that encounter. It does not save fuel, idling burns more gas than restarting the car. It does not benefit the car to warm up, it should be warmed up by actually driving. It does not speed up the interior heater, it warms up much faster while driving. And  idling your car produces more wear and tear on the engine and increased fuel costs. Maintaining your vehicle’s exhaust system can cut down the possibility of toxic fumes entering the vehicle during traffic delays.  It is also recommended that after any snowstorm, checking to make sure the exhaust is not blocked before driving.

In 2016, a 23-year-old New Jersey mother and her one-year-old son perished in an idling car while the husband cleared snow around the vehicle. Carbon monoxide can fill up a small space quickly with lethal results. The tail pipe had been clogged with snow thus leading to the rapid build-up of fumes.

We have covered many aspects of carbon monoxide poisoning in boating. One of the misconceptions about carbon monoxide poisoning is that it cannot happen in open air. We have seen many instances of design flaws in watercraft such as swim platforms and badly placed exhaust systems combining to create a situation where carbon monoxide builds up quickly in the rear of the boat or under swim platforms resulting in untold numbers of deaths and drownings. These drownings were mislabeled for many years until brought under scrutiny to determine if carbon monoxide had a role.

Carbon monoxide can build up in any rear vented boat, especially when traveling at an idle or slow speed. There are many factors that can increase the likelihood of back drafting as well such as boat load and bow angle, as well as atmospheric conditions which bring exhaust into the carbon area.

The point to remember is that any place there is a fuel burning device there is a risk of carbon monoxide exposure. That includes gas-powered tools or cleaning devices operated indoors or close to an air intake source, lanterns and other devices not intended to be used in an enclosed space, and gas stoves operated outside of their intended use such as for heating. Manufacturers produce devices with recommended ways to use those devices for a reason.

As the winter months approach and we debate the severity of the weather approaching in the next few month, inevitably there will be winter storms. The ice storms of last year resulted in overwhelming reports of carbon monoxide exposure and sadly, deaths that could have been prevented. We explored emergency warnings in traditionally non-English speaking communities and means to address that. However, we also have to focus on the conception the general public has about the potential for danger from carbon monoxide. Over 400 United States residents die of carbon monoxide poisoning each year.

More carbon monoxide misconceptions were included in the public health report of HealthStyles of its 2005 and 2006 survey:

“In 2005, 63.3% of HealthStyles respondents agreed with or were uncertain about the incorrect statement, “It is safe to run a generator in a garage as long as the door is open,” while 43.1% agreed with or were uncertain about the incorrect statement, “It is safe to run a generator in the basement.” Most of the 2006 respondents (63.5%) agreed that it is important to have their furnace inspected annually. However, fewer than half of the 2006 respondents (42.0%)—most of whom were homeowners—reported owning a CO detector.”

In March, 2011, Senators Amy Klobuchar and John Hoeven reintroduced bi-partisan legislation to help prevent carbon monoxide deaths. Their legislative efforts followed the incredible number of cases produced by the Texas ice storms. One aspect of the bill was to provide funding for  education about carbon monoxide to states, local governments and tribes, as well as funding for carbon monoxide detectors. The need for more carbon monoxide awareness is justified by the unending headlines in newspapers across the country involving needless injuries and deaths due to preventable carbon monoxide injuries and deaths.

The Texas ice storms brought about a greater awareness of the gravity of the issue and this year has seen a rise in articles warning of the carbon monoxide dangers which accompany the arrival of colder weather. But I would like to leave you with the importance of remembering that carbon monoxide dangers exist anywhere there is a fuel burning device. Whether that is in your home, your job, your school,  your transportation or on vacation or during recreation. Awareness is half the battle.

Remember to check your detectors and if you don’t have detectors, get them. And maybe think about a few detectors to add to your Christmas list for those who are the most vulnerable, our nation’s elderly.


[1] Biomimetic – relating to or denoting synthetic methods which mimic biochemical processes


0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *