The invisible killer

By Humera Niazi
Tue, 05, 22

These precious lives could have been saved, had there been enough awareness about carbon monoxide poisoning in Pakistan...

The invisible killer


In January this year, 22 persons, including women and children, lost their lives in freezing temperature at the hill station Murree. Most of the tourists died in their cars as they were trapped in road jams due to impossible snow clearing operation. These precious lives could have been saved, had there been enough awareness about carbon monoxide poisoning in Pakistan.

Carbon monoxide is an odourless, colourless gas that often goes undetected, striking victims caught off guard or in their sleep. The gas is characteristically rather sneaky in the atmosphere, therefore prevention is very important. There is detector equipment which identifies the presence of this gas. These instruments are placed in vehicles and different rooms in work spaces or homes. While these detectors can be helpful, it is better to be prepared in case at any point this machinery becomes defective.

There are a lot of conversations on the subject across the world. There is an ‘awareness week’ in the U.K. that informs people about the issue. In the U.S. there being a whole dedicated month (in November) which provides information about this lethal gas. Abroad, it is a common knowledge that one should not keep their car engine and heater on in a ‘snow storm’ and keep sitting in the car, as the exhaust pipe gets blocked with snow and carbon monoxide enters inside the car sitting area. And this can prove to be fatal for the people sitting in the car, as it unfortunately did for the people stuck in Murree. Apart from that, a faulty leaky engine can also cause carbon monoxide finding its way inside the vehicle. Ventilation and keeping some outlet for air movement is beneficial to some extent. Nonetheless, in the U.S. about 400 people died within a year from accidental CO poisoning. And about 50,000 people visited emergency units in hospitals.

It would be very useful if vehicle companies carry an important warning of a few words explaining that vehicle engines should be turned off in a snow storm. This notice could be placed in the vehicle inside or somewhere where it is visible when the vehicle bonnet opens. And there could be ‘red’ warning signs indicating that the exhaust is ‘not working’ as action could be taken to rectify it. This would prevent the carbon monoxide gas from entering the vehicle. These signs could be like the red lights which turn on as the engine is started.

Carbon monoxide is detrimental for humans, as it affects oxygen saturation. In chemical terms, it has an affinity to easily bind to the bloods haemoglobin, thus replacing oxygen. The process causes carboxyhemoglobin in the blood. This is very damaging as oxygen is vital for life and the human body. After inhalation, oxygen from the air moves towards the lungs and enters the small air sacs (alveoli) subsequently being transferred to the blood moving towards the heart which pumps blood to the vital organs and the tissues throughout the body, providing oxygen.

The invisible killer

Carbon monoxide is mainly a by-product of ‘incomplete combustion’. Apart from mechanisms of vehicles it is also a consequence of the usage of gas heaters, stoves, water heaters, oil lamps, wood, paraffin and coal burning. All such things need precautionary measures. Whereas caution for machinery is that it should be in good condition (checked by technicians). Furthermore ventilation is very important. The dangers carbon monoxide potentially causes, should not be taken lightly. But if you are well armed to fight it, by adequate awareness. It is not a problem and safety can be ensured.

Symptom severity of CO poisoning varies depending on the level of carbon monoxide and duration of exposure. Mild symptoms sometimes are mistaken for flu. Low to moderate carbon monoxide poisoning is characterised by headache, fatigue, shortness of breath, nausea and dizziness. High-level of carbon monoxide poisoning results in mental confusion, vomiting, loss of muscular coordination, loss of consciousness and death.

If you think you are experiencing any of the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, go outside and get fresh air immediately. You could lose consciousness and die if you stay in the home.

Some precautionary measures to avoid CO poisoning:

* Have your furnace, water heater and any other gas or coal-burning appliances serviced by a qualified technician every year.

* Do not use portable flameless chemical heaters indoors

* Never use a gas heater for heating your home

* Never use a generator inside your home, basement or garage, or less than 20 feet from any window, door or vent; fatal levels of carbon monoxide can be produced in just minutes, even if doors and windows are open

* Never run a car in a garage that is attached to a house, even with the garage door open; always open the door to a detached garage to let in fresh air when you run a car inside.