Carbon monoxide poisoning typically occurs from breathing in too much carbon monoxide (CO). Symptoms are often described as “flu-like” and commonly include headache, dizziness, weakness, vomiting, chest pain, and confusion. Large exposures can result in loss of consciousness, arrhythmias, seizures, or death. The classically described “cherry red skin” rarely occurs. Long term complications may include feeling tired, trouble with memory, and movement problems. In those exposed to smoke, cyanide toxicity should also be considered.
Carbon monoxide poisoning can occur accidentally or as an attempt to end one’s life. CO is a colorless and odorless gas which is initially non-irritating. It is produced during incomplete burning of organic matter. This can occur from motor vehicles, heaters, or cooking equipment that run on carbon-based fuels. It can also occur from exposure to methylene chloride. Carbon monoxide primarily causes adverse effects by combining with hemoglobin to form carboxyhemoglobin (HbCO) preventing the blood from carrying oxygen. Additionally, myoglobin and mitochondrial cytochrome oxidase are affected. Diagnosis is based on a HbCO level of more than 3% among nonsmokers and more than 10% among smokers.
Efforts to prevent poisoning include carbon monoxide detectors, proper venting of gas appliances, keeping chimneys clean, and keeping exhaust systems of vehicles in good repair. Treatment of poisoning generally consists of giving 100% oxygen along with supportive care. This should generally be carried out until symptoms are no longer present and the HbCO level is less than 10%. While hyperbaric oxygen therapy is used for severe poisonings, the benefit over standard oxygen delivery is unclear. The risk of death among those affected is between 1 and 30%.
Carbon monoxide poisoning is relatively common, resulting in more than 20,000 emergency department visits a year in the United States. It is the most common type of fatal poisoning in many countries. In the United States non-fire related cases results in more than 400 deaths a year. Poisonings occur more often in the winter, particularly from the use of portable generators during power outages. The toxic effects of CO have been known since ancient history. The realization that hemoglobin was affected by CO was determined in 1857.
Signs and symptoms
Carbon monoxide is not toxic to all forms of life. Its harmful effects are due to binding with hemoglobin so its danger to organisms that do not use this compound is doubtful. It thus has no effect on photosynthesising plants. It is easily absorbed through the lungs. Inhaling the gas can lead to hypoxic injury, nervous system damage, and even death. Different people and populations may have different carbon monoxide tolerance levels. On average, exposures at 100 ppm or greater is dangerous to human health. In the United States, the OSHA limits long-term workplace exposure levels to less than 50 ppm averaged over an 8-hour period; in addition, employees are to be removed from any confined space if an upper limit (“ceiling”) of 100 ppm is reached. Carbon monoxide exposure may lead to a significantly shorter life span due to heart damage. The carbon monoxide tolerance level for any person is altered by several factors, including activity level, rate of ventilation, a pre-existing cerebral or cardiovascular disease, cardiac output, anemia, sickle cell disease and other hematological disorders, barometric pressure, and metabolic rate.
Prevention remains a vital public health issue, requiring public education on the safe operation of appliances, heaters, fireplaces, and internal-combustion engines, as well as increased emphasis on the installation of carbon monoxide detectors. Carbon monoxide is tasteless and odourless, and therefore can not be detected by visual cues or smell.
The United States Consumer Product Safety Commission has stated, “carbon monoxide detectors are as important to home safety as smoke detectors are,” and recommends each home have at least one carbon monoxide detector, and preferably one on each level of the building. These devices, which are relatively inexpensive and widely available, are either battery- or AC-powered, with or without battery backup. In buildings, carbon monoxide detectors are usually installed around heaters and other equipment. If a relatively high level of carbon monoxide is detected, the device sounds an alarm, giving people the chance to evacuate and ventilate the building. Unlike smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors do not need to be placed near ceiling level.
The use of carbon monoxide detectors has been standardized in many areas. In the US, NFPA 720-2009, the carbon monoxide detector guidelines published by the National Fire Protection Association, mandates the placement of carbon monoxide detectors/alarms on every level of the residence, including the basement, in addition to outside sleeping areas. In new homes, AC-powered detectors must have battery backup and be interconnected to ensure early warning of occupants at all levels. NFPA 720-2009 is the first national carbon monoxide standard to address devices in non-residential buildings. These guidelines, which now pertain to schools, healthcare centers, nursing homes and other non-residential buildings, include three main points:
1. A secondary power supply (battery backup) must operate all carbon monoxide notification appliances for at least 12 hours,
2. Detectors must be on the ceiling in the same room as permanently installed fuel-burning appliances, and
3. Detectors must be located on every habitable level and in every HVAC zone of the building.
Gas organizations will often recommend to get gas appliances serviced at least once a year.
The NFPA standard is not necessarily enforced by law. As of April 2006, the US state of Massachusetts requires detectors to be present in all residences with potential CO sources, regardless of building age and whether they are owner-occupied or rented. This is enforced by municipal inspectors, and was inspired by the death of 7-year-old Nicole Garofalo in 2005 due to snow blocking a home heating vent. Other jurisdictions may have no requirement or only mandate detectors for new construction or at time of sale.
Despite similar deaths in vehicles with clogged exhaust pipes (for example in the Northeastern United States blizzard of 1978 and February 2013 nor’easter) and the commercial availability of the equipment, there is no legal requirement for automotive CO detectors.
World Health Organization recommendations
The following guideline values (ppm values rounded) and periods of time-weighted average exposures have been determined in such a way that the carboxyhaemoglobin (COHb) level of 2.5% is not exceeded, even when a normal subject engages in light or moderate exercise:
100 mg/m3 (87 ppm) for 15 min
60 mg/m3 (52 ppm) for 30 min
30 mg/m3 (26 ppm) for 1 h
10 mg/m3 (9 ppm) for 8 h
For indoor air quality 7 mg/m3 (6 ppm) for 24 h (so as not to exceed 2% COHb for chronic exposure)
Initial treatment for carbon monoxide poisoning is to immediately remove the person from the exposure without endangering further people. Those who are unconscious may require CPR on site. Administering oxygen via non-rebreather mask shortens the half-life of carbon monoxide from 320 minutes, when breathing normal air, to only 80 minutes. Oxygen hastens the dissociation of carbon monoxide from carboxyhemoglobin, thus turning it back into hemoglobin. Due to the possible severe effects in the fetus, pregnant women are treated with oxygen for longer periods of time than non-pregnant people.
A person within a hyperbaric oxygen chamber
Hyperbaric oxygen is also used in the treatment of carbon monoxide poisoning, as it may hasten dissociation of CO from carboxyhemoglobin and cytochrome oxidase to a greater extent than normal oxygen. Hyperbaric oxygen at three times atmospheric pressure reduces the half life of carbon monoxide to 23 (~80/3 minutes) minutes, compared to 80 minutes for oxygen at regular atmospheric pressure. It may also enhance oxygen transport to the tissues by plasma, partially bypassing the normal transfer through hemoglobin. However, it is controversial whether hyperbaric oxygen actually offers any extra benefits over normal high flow oxygen, in terms of increased survival or improved long-term outcomes. There have been randomized controlled trials in which the two treatment options have been compared; of the six performed, four found hyperbaric oxygen improved outcome and two found no benefit for hyperbaric oxygen. Some of these trials have been criticized for apparent flaws in their implementation. A review of all the literature concluded that the role of hyperbaric oxygen is unclear and the available evidence neither confirms nor denies a medically meaningful benefit. The authors suggested a large, well designed, externally audited, multicentre trial to compare normal oxygen with hyperbaric oxygen.
Further treatment for other complications such as seizure, hypotension, cardiac abnormalities, pulmonary edema, and acidosis may be required. Increased muscle activity and seizures should be treated with dantrolene or diazepam; diazepam should only be given with appropriate respiratory support. Hypotension requires treatment with intravenous fluids; vasopressors may be required to treat myocardial depression. Cardiac dysrhythmias are treated with standard advanced cardiac life support protocols. If severe, metabolic acidosis is treated with sodium bicarbonate. Treatment with sodium bicarbonate is controversial as acidosis may increase tissue oxygen availability. Treatment of acidosis may only need to consist of oxygen therapy. The delayed development of neuropsychiatric impairment is one of the most serious complications of carbon monoxide poisoning. Brain damage is confirmed following MRI or CAT scans. Extensive follow up and supportive treatment is often required for delayed neurological damage. Outcomes are often difficult to predict following poisoning, especially people who have symptoms of cardiac arrest, coma, metabolic acidosis, or have high carboxyhemoglobin levels. One study reported that approximately 30% of people with severe carbon monoxide poisoning will have a fatal outcome. It has been reported that electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) may increase the likelihood of delayed neuropsychiatric sequelae (DNS) after carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning.