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The air we breathe every day is full of toxins. According to the EPA, particle pollution and ground-level ozone pollution still affect numerous areas across the U.S.
How they affect each of us individually depends on our bodies, how much of the toxin we are exposed to and how long we are exposed to them. Generally, our bodies tell us when we are exposed to such a poison — we cough or our skin becomes itchy. Generally, mild exposure will cause no reaction. Higher exposure, however, can cause an immediate reaction so that we know to avoid it in the future.
Unfortunately, carbon monoxide gives no such warning. Of the toxins that are dangerous, carbon monoxide may be the most frightening because of this. You can’t smell it, see it or taste it — making it impossible to know if you or your family have been exposed to this noxious gas until it is too late.
Also known by its scientific name, CO, carbon monoxide is the result of incomplete burning of natural gas and other material that contains carbon. Examples of carbon-containing materials include: kerosene, gasoline, oil, wood, propane or coal. The most common source of CO in the workplace comes from internal combustion engines, though any place that uses these materials — like homes or businesses — can be a danger.
Blast furnaces, forages and coke ovens can also be causes of CO exposure. If you work in a place where these are in operation, you should understand the risks to your health. OSHA recommends:
• Installing proper ventilation
• Maintaining water heaters, space heaters or stoves that can produce CO
• Switching from gas-powered equipment to electric or battery-operated
In addition, the air should be tested regularly for CO, and personal CO monitors with alarms for exposure, especially for workers in fields with a high risk of exposure, should be standard.
The effect of carbon monoxide on the body is subtle. When people are exposed to carbon monoxide, the CO displaces the oxygen in the blood, depriving the brain, heart and other organs of the oxygen necessary for life. Exposure to large amounts of CO at once will overcome people, and since there are no irritants to warn them of the poison, they are likely unaware of even being exposed, leading to loss of consciousness and suffocation.
More immediate symptoms of CO poisoning are chest tightening, headache, fatigue, dizziness or nausea. Prolonged exposure may cause people to be confused, vomit and collapse, though symptoms will vary from person to person.
Effects of CO exposure will happen sooner to people who are more susceptible, like the young, elderly or people with lung or heart issues. Smokers will also likely be more affected than non-smokers, due to the fact that smoking cigarettes causes elevated CO blood levels.
Carbon monoxide poisoning can be reversed if it is caught in time, but in cases of acute poisoning, permanent damage may result from the brain and organs not getting enough oxygen.
People in the following occupations are the ones who have the highest risk of exposure to CO:
• Carbon-black maker
• Garage mechanic
• Taxi/Uber/Lyft drivers
• Firefighter/police officer
• Customs inspector
• Longshore worker
• Organic chemical synthesizer
• Metal oxide reducer
• Diesel engine/forklift operator
• Marine terminal worker
• Toll booth or tunnel attendant
The nature of the exposure depends on the field, but anyone in these industries should be aware that CO exposure is a possibility.
According to the journal Science, there may be an antidote to CO poisoning — an amazing advancement. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine have discovered a protein that reverses carbon monoxide toxicity in mice — the only known antidote to carbon monoxide poisoning. The researchers in Pittsburgh tested the mice by giving them lethal doses of carbon monoxide.
When testers gave the mice the antidote within five minutes of exposure, 87% of them lived — a number rarely seen in clinical situations. Such medication would be a revolutionary advancement, as more than 50,000 emergencies each year are the result of carbon monoxide exposure. In fact, globally, CO exposure is the leading cause of poison-related death.
Until this antidote becomes more mainstream, prevention is still the best way to stop accidental poisonings from carbon monoxide. In CO removal systems like CO extractors, water is removed first, followed by the catalysis of carbon monoxide to carbon dioxide. In homes and businesses, carbon monoxide detectors are a simple and effective way to keep people aware of CO levels.
In the meantime, scientists are working on furthering their research regarding the antidote to CO exposure in larger animals, like mice. Though all the answers to CO poisoning aren’t known yet, researchers are hopeful that this antidote will change our fear of carbon monoxide.