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Carbon Monoxide: The Silent Killer

Carbon Monoxide:  The Silent Killer

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a toxic flammable gas which is formed by the incomplete combustion of carbon.  Incomplete combustion occurs when there is not enough oxygen for the fuel to react completely to produce carbon dioxide and water.  Instead, the carbon releases soot, unlike carbon monoxide, which releases an odorless, tasteless, and colorless gas, which makes it deadly.

Hemoglobin is a carrier protein in your red blood cells.  It binds to the oxygen in your lungs and carries the oxygen to the tissues in your body.  However, when you breathe in CO it binds to the hemoglobin and forms carboxyhemogobin (COHb).  COHb then displaces the oxygen and it is carried throughout your body.  CO’s affinity for hemoglobin is 200 times that of oxygen which means it rapidly displaces the oxygen.  NEJM, 2009

The effects of CO poisoning varies from person to person, but there is a correlation between the amount of CO you are exposed to and the length of time you are exposed to it.  CO is measured in parts per million.  There are 100 molecules of CO for every 999,900 molecules of air, which computes to 100 ppms.  Just 200 ppms will cause dizziness, nausea, and fatigue after 2-3 hours of CO exposure.  Double the exposure (400 ppms), and it will take only 3 hours before the CO exposure becomes life-threatening. 800 ppms can render you unconscious after 1 hour of exposure and cause death within 2-3 hours. 12,800 ppms will kill you in less than 5 minutes (CO Knowledge Center).

According to the Centers for Disease Control, a total of 2,244 deaths occurred from unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning between 2010 and 2015.  Although the highest number of those deaths occurred in winter months, CO poisoning can happen in the warmer months as well.  CO does not discriminate, it can happen anytime of the year, day or night.  CO will quickly fill a room anytime incomplete combustion occurs in an enclosed area with inadequate ventilation.

Effects of Carbon Monoxide

CO poisoning often mimics other illnesses—such as the flu—with symptoms such as a headache, dizziness, imbalance, nausea, vomiting, chest pain, and disorientation.  Therefore, it is not unusual for medical providers to discount CO poisoning as a diagnosis, particularly in the warmer months when CO poisoning is typically not suspected.  The symptoms will usually abate once you leave the contaminated area, but the harm to you may have already been done.

If you experience any symptoms of CO poisoning, leave the affected area at once. Prolonged exposure may leave you incapacitated by way of disorientation or unconsciousness, and as a result, you may not be capable of making the decision to leave on your own volition.

Carbon Monoxide Related Injuries

Dr. Lindell Weaver (Utah) is an expert in CO poisoning.  He has conducted several studies on the long-term effects, which can include, among other things, cognitive disorders, mood changes, depression, anxiety, issues with balance, and attention deficits.

Mona Hopkins, PhD, is an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University and has done extensive research on anoxic brain injuries (lack of oxygen). According to Hopkins (referring to CO poisoning), the hippocampus, which is a part of the brain that plays an important role in forming new memories, “is particularly vulnerable to the effects of the gas.”  Atrophy of brain cells can occur up to 12 months after CO poisoning, so the injuries may not be noticeable immediately.

The National Institute of Health estimates 50,000 people visit the ER annually because of nonintentional CO poisoning.  The resulting injuries can be long-term, or even permanent, and may require costly life-long medical treatment and related therapies.

Carbon Monoxide and Prevention

Appliances, generators, cars, boats, power tools, and anything else that burns fuel, can emit CO.  CO poisoning can occur in the home and the workplace; some jobs may even put you at a higher risk for CO exposure, such as a firefighter, welder, or mechanic.

Always make sure that appliances/power tools are installed properly and you follow the manufacturer's instructions for proper use, and always make sure you are using these appliances/power tools in an area which is properly ventilated.

Additionally, make sure your home has a working CO detector, and because not all hotels (or other lodging) have, or are required to have, CO detectors, you should always travel with a portable one.  In-home and portable CO detectors are relatively inexpensive and range anywhere from $20-$130.

NC Laws

Laws regarding CO varies from state to state.  North Carolina requires carbon monoxide detectors in private dwellings via state statute, N.C. Gen Stat. § 143-138.  Landlords are required to provide a carbon monoxide detector per rental unit per level. NC. Gen Stat. § 42-42 to 42-44.

Third-Party Liability

CO poisoning often happens because of a tragic unintentional accident, but it can also happen because of a defective product and/or it can be caused by the negligence of a third-party, such as product manufacturers, landlords, or employers.

  • A Pennsylvania woman filed a $30 million lawsuit against an Ocean City, Maryland hotel as a result of the June 2006 CO poisoning deaths of her husband and 10 year-old daughter. The CO entered their hotel room via a disconnected water heater pipe in the basement of the hotel. The parties reached a confidential settlement in 2009.  Five other guests staying at the hotel at the time filed a lawsuit for the injuries they sustained and settled for an undisclosed amount.
  • A Baltimore jury awarded $34.3 million in damages to 23 people who were permanently injured from CO poisoning when the toxic gas was released at a Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse in 2008. Maryland Daily Record.
  • The family of an 11-year old Rock Hill, NC boy who died from CO poisoning at a Boone Best Western hotel in 2013, agreed to settle their wrongful death and injury suits against the hotel and other parties for million. The 11 year-old died when CO leaked from a swimming pool heating system. His mother was also poisoned by CO and suffered serious injuries.  Six weeks earlier, Daryl and Shirley Jenkins of Washington State had died in the very same room; however, CO was not immediately identified as the cause of death. Charlotte Observer, January 22, 2018

CO poisoning can lead to long-term or permanent injuries which means life-long, costly medical care.  CO poisoning can also lead to the wrongful death of your loved one.  If you or your loved one has suffered an injury and you suspect a third-party is liable, call us today at 704-714-1450 today for a free consultation with one of our  attorneys.


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