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Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

When wood, petrol, or natural gas are burned completely water and carbon dioxide are created. However, when they are only partially burnt carbon monoxide is made. Carbon monoxide is tasteless and odourless, but other gases released at the same time may give indicators that there is a problem.

How Does Poisoning Work?
Sources of Poisoning
Protecting Your Family
What to Do If Poisoning Has Occured

How Does Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Work?

The body functions like a city different workers doing different jobs to ensure that everything operates correctly. In the body one of the most important workers is OXYGEN. Oxygen is needed by every cell in the body to function correctly.

When you breathe in, oxygen arrives at the lungs ready for work and is taken to the cells by HEMOGLOBIN, which can be thought of as a bus. When hemoglobin reaches the cell it drops off the oxygen and picks up CARBON DIOXIDE (oxygen at the end of the working day). Carbon dioxide is dropped off at the lungs and is breathed out, while hemoglobin picks up some more oxygen and takes it to some cells to start work. This continues 24 hours a day.

When someone breathes in CARBON MONOXIDE there is a big change. Carbon monoxide is like a bully. He pushes oxygen off his seat on the bus, and will not get off he is here for the joy ride. Because oxygen cannot get onto the bus, the cells do not get any oxygen and so cannot continue to work properly. The more carbon monoxide that is riding the hemoglobin bus the less effectively the cells can work, and they may start to die.

How Could I Be Poisoned By Carbon Monoxide?

Sources of carbon monoxide can include:
  • Car engines that are not working correctly
  • Running an engine (e.g. car, motorbike, or forklift) in a confined space such as a garage
  • Gas stoves that are not working correctly
  • Chimneys or flues that are broken or blocked
  • Burning fuels in a confined space
How Can I Protect My Family From Carbon Monoxide Poisoning?

Signs that there may be a problem:
  • Gas flames burning yellow and flickering instead of a steady blue
  • Soot accumulating around the fire place
  • Rust on metal flues
  • Fumes smelled inside a vehicle
How to minimize risk from carbon monoxide poisoning:
  • Monitor appliances for indications of malfunction (as above)
  • Use products as they are intended stoves are not meant to heat the room
  • Do not run a cars engine in the garage (even if the door is open)
  • If using an indoor gas heater (particularly unflued) then ensure house is well ventilated
  • Never use an outdoor cooker (either gas or charcoal) inside
  • Consider purchasing a carbon monoxide alarm
Carbon monoxide monitors can check for the presence of carbon monoxide above a preset level. They should always be treated as an additional safety measure rather than as a substitute for monitoring of the appliances.

What Should I Do if I Think Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Has Occurred?

Symptoms that people develop when they are exposed to carbon monoxide:
  • Tiredness and weakness
  • Nausea
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Tight chest
  • A "cherry red" flushed appearance
What to do if someone has poisoning, a problem is seen, or the carbon monoxide alarm sounds:
  • People should be removed from the building or vehicle
  • If safe to do so turn off any sources of gas
  • Call the Fire Service for assistance with safe ventilation of the house
  • If anyone has ANY symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning then they need urgent medical assessment at hospital
Even if the person looks like they feel better, carbon monoxide can still be poisoning them, and they can get even worse over the next few days.


Related Resources
Prevent Poisoning: Keeping Children Safe From Poisons - A brochure on general poisoning prevention information including home safety tips
Put Your Kid's Safety First - A brochure detailing the risk of dishwasher detergents and simple safety tips for their use
Working with Chemicals, Confined Spaces and Respirators - A booklet on the risk of using of farming-related chemicals within confined spaces


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University of Otago NZ National Poisons Centre


Last updated 08/06/2010



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