Carbon Monoxide in Your Environment

Recent developments of human society have brought a lot of attention to carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide production, reduction and the overall balance of this gas in the atmosphere. While carbon dioxide is a highly stable molecule, requiring high levels of energy to be processed, carbon monoxide is a more instable form. It is a co-product of incomplete combustion processes and is rapidly reacted in the atmosphere. However, due to its easy interaction with other molecules, carbon monoxide represents a health hazard to humans, working as a toxic compound affecting the respiratory process. More concerningly, even slight concentrations (35 ppm) is enough to onset health issues in normal individuals.

What is carbon monoxide?

Formed by a single atom of carbon and a single atom of oxygen, carbon monoxide is a natural intermediary of the combustion process. While combustion leads to the formation of CO2 as a final step, carbon monoxide (CO) can appear as the result of the lack of oxygen or energy in the combustion process, which is very common in stoves or combustion engines. In nature, CO is formed in volcanoes, natural fires and even during the process of breathing.

As a colorless and odorless compound, detecting carbon monoxide is quite challenging and can lead to a significant increase of concentration in enclosed spaces before detecting the source of contamination. As a toxic compound, CO acts by binding with hemoglobin to form carboxyhemoglobin, reducing the effectiveness of oxygen transport in our blood. Hemoglobin is a key player in the transport of oxygen through our body and essential to the healthy functioning of our organisms. As CO converts them to carboxyhemoglobin, the oxygen distribution is reduced leading to several health issues.

Where can I find carbon monoxide in my environment?

As a naturally occurring element from partial combustion, carbon monoxide will be present in almost every appliance that has not reached complete combustion. In this case, carbon monoxide is typically found in heaters, stoves, and fireplaces, generators, appliances fueled by gas, cigarette and pipe smokes, clothes dryers, boilers, water heaters, grills, and others. Curiously, because CO is lightweight, tends to ascend in the air and migrate from one location to the next.

In this sense, CO can be present in your environment due to bad positioning of air vents that connect your air distribution system to outside sources of CO. In fact, these are the most challenging sources of CO to control.

How can I control CO in my environment?

Reaching complete combustion is not an overall simple chemical reaction, it demands a considerable amount of energy to convert all carbon matters to simple carbon dioxide (CO2) and water molecules. Therefore, it is safe to assume that most combustion processes carried out in an environment are somewhat inefficient and produce CO. Thus, to control CO concentration in your environment it is recommended to:

  • Never leave the car running inside a closed garage, do it in the driveway
  • When using wood-burning stoves, ensure the doors are properly closed to favor a complete combustion of the content
  • Use adequate fuel in kerosene heaters
  • Inspect regularly all gas appliances in the environment
  • Never use gasoline-powered machines in the environment
  • Avoid using charcoal grill indoors
  • Properly maintain heating systems
  • Do not allow indoors tobacco smoking
  • Install exhaustion pipes channeling the combustion areas
What are the health effects of CO contamination?

CO is considered to be highly toxic to humans, which means that the slightest concentration of CO in your environment is enough to cause several different side effects. Although produced naturally in the body acting as in neurotransmission and as a blood vessel relaxant, CO contamination can lead to rapid death and should be treated with caution.

When CO enters the human organism it immediately bonds with the hemoglobin found in your blood-forming carboxyhemoglobin which compromises the transport of oxygen throughout your organism. Due to its high toxicity, symptoms can escalate rapidly and individuals should be directed to hospitals as soon as possible.

Initial symptoms of CO exposure include headaches, dizziness, fatigue, impaired vision and coordination, angina, nausea, difficulties to breathe and loss of consciousness. When exposed to small amounts daily, considered as long-term exposure, individuals can still develop flu-like symptoms, vertigo, headache, fibromyalgia, vision loss, hearing loss, weakness and irritable bowel syndrome tremors, slow movement, among others. Long term exposure has also been associated with several reproduction problems leading to low birth weight, behavioral problems and perinatal death.

Finally, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has recommended that CO concentrations be kept under 50 ppm at all times in working and living environments at the risk of leading to severe health issues if not controlled. However, individuals at risk such as children, individuals with hearth and breathing diseases and pregnant women should not be exposed to CO at any detectable level to ensure that their safety is not compromised.

How can I detect CO in my environment?

ince it is odorless and colorless, CO detection is primarily carried out through equipment that measures the level of the chemical compound in your environment. However, besides the health issues that you may develop from exposure to CO, other indications that a high level of CO is found indoors are:

  • Burning flames in stoves are yellowish, instead of blue
  • Dark stains appear around appliances
  • Increase condensation inside windows
  • Symptoms of illness that disappear when leaving the environment
  • Pets are suddenly ill
  • Lack of upward draft in the chimney
  • Soot in fireplaces

Ultimately, the installation of CO monitoring and detection devices is recommended to ensure that the levels of CO are kept under control and properly observed. Note that this equipment is normally meant to operate from 5 to 7 years. However, proper maintenance, verifying battery level and continuous work of the equipment are crucial to ensure CO contamination is not present.

How can IAQ help?

IAQ provides with the professional assistance in several matters related to indoor air quality. The main focus of the company is to ensure that you and your family are not exposed to any form of harmful substances or chemicals while in the safety of your own environment. With this goal in mind, IAQ has developed and trained a team of professionals that is able to evaluate and treat your indoor air improving its overall quality and removing any risk factors it might present.

When considering contamination with CO, IAQ can provide you with a detection procedure, consisting of air sampling and chemical analysis to determine CO concentration in your environment. Moreover, with a highly qualified team, IAQ is capable to determine the variations of CO throughout your environment and pinpoint the sources of this problematic emission in your environment. Once your environment is properly assessed, IAQ is able to suggest several measures and adaptations that will ensure the control and reduction of CO level in your environment, protecting your family from any damage that long-term exposure to CO might cause.

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