Why IS Carbon Monoxide Dangerous? Fact is, in a house fire it’s BIG trouble.

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When you find the answers to why is carbon monoxide dangerous you will have a solid foundation for understanding this air contaminant and be able to protect yourself and your loved ones from carbon monoxide (CO) exposures.  It’s really not something to treat lightly because the higher the level of CO in the air the more quickly it can poison you and that’s the issue, it will poison you.  So in a fire it becomes one of the most dangerous components of the smoke that quickly fills your home. Along with hydrogen cyanide, these two contaminants in smoke pose life-threatening risks.

Why Is Carbon Monoxide Dangerous

The soot on the face and hands of this firefighter are exactly what can get into our lungs.  Normally we don’t have protective gear as they do.

Yes, this is a somber subject and recently we have been drilling down on these serious issues as related to fire safety and our family’s fire escape plan.  Caring for these concerns is certainly important for families with special needs children, but, everyone can be better prepared with good information at their fingertips.  That is what this post is all about.  Knowing about carbon monoxide and how it will affect you in a fire, how hazardous it is, and what it does to your health gives you a leg up.  You can make your best choices with accurate information.  So let’s get to it!

Carbon monoxide is generated when organic matter does not burn completely.  It is the result of not having enough oxygen available to complete the entire oxidation or burning process.  In a house fire that means the fire growth is consuming oxygen and by removing it from the air that becomes the precursor to carbon monoxide generation.

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Levels

The higher the concentration of carbon monoxide the more dangerous it becomes.  You can think of it this way, levels over 100 ppm are dangerous to human health.  The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) says that during an eight-hour day a person should never exceed a concentration level of 35 parts per million (ppm).  Well, CO exposures of 3,000 ppm have been measured at fire scenes and here’s the kicker, a level of 1500 ppm is considered ‘immediately dangerous to life and health’ (IDLH).  So, there you go, these are the carbon monoxide danger levels making it apparent that during a fire CO can quickly get mixed up in the smoke filled air and compromise our ability to survive.

Why Is Carbon Monoxide Dangerous?

Grand Prize Poster by Frankie, 8th Grade, California, Consumer Product Safety Commission

But you may say “What in the world is a part per million?”  Good question.  Think of it this way; fill a room with 1 million white ping pong balls, then take 35 of them out replacing them with 35 green ones.  Now you will have 35 (green) parts per to the 1 million (white) ping pong balls, 35 ppm.  And let me tell you it doesn’t take much to exceed that level when a fire has started to increase the heat load on organic materials, even wood.  Why a wood burning fireplace and poorly operating fuel engines are sources of CO exposures in everyday scenarios that can easily create a CO excess in our breathable air.  So how much more a building fire.

You can’t smell or taste the CO but you do feel it’s effects.  I once measured the air of a retail store that had a floor company cleaning and buffing floors with a propane buffer.  The employees had called in complaining of feeling sick when they came to work and that they were getting severe headaches.  It was only on certain days.  My investigation surfaced that the floor cleaning company’s schedule and employee symptoms coincided.  So I stopped in to do testing.  The CO levels exceeded 265 to 325 ppm in the immediate zone of the buffer and around the store I was still getting readings of 90 ppm.  No wonder the employees were having such health problems.  So let’s look at the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning.

How does carbon monoxide kill?

Yes, I did say poisoning.  Look it’s toxic and you are not likely to detect it because it’s colorless, odorless and tasteless.  You just won’t know it’s there.  But in a fire, you will likely be inhaling dangerous levels of this air contaminant.  You breathe it in and then it’s very properties gives it the capacity to adhere to an oxygen-carrying blood cell up to two hundred times more quickly and efficiently than oxygen.  That’s a problem.  Because once the CO adheres to one of the four O2 sites on the blood cell it pretty much gets stuck there.  Now the blood is carrying, not life-sustaining oxygen for ‘tissue perfusion’, it’s circulating CO and our bodies use only minute amounts of CO.  The high CO concentration in the blood creates a condition called carboxyhemoglobin.  What is essentially happening is we are being chemically asphyxiated, no O2 carried to the cells thus creates cell death.

Why is carbon monoxide dangerous

Here is what the journal Fire Engineering said about the mechanisms of CO and HCN (hydrogen cyanide) poisoning in our bodies: “CO works as an asphyxiant by binding hemoglobin 200 times more effectively than oxygen.  It eliminates the blood’s ability to deliver oxygen throughout the body.  HCN is also an asphyxiant, but it attacks the cell’s ability to use (my emphasis) oxygen and generate energy (it’s a matter of cellular metabolism, my emphasis).  Significant exposure to HCN generally results in penalization (handicaps breathing and can cause respiratory arrest, my emphasis) of respiratory muscles and asphyxiation….They work synergistically to hurry death by attacking respiration from two sides, oxygen delivery and oxygen use.”

So what are the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning?  What does this feel like?

Why is carbon monoxide dangerous?

These symptoms certainly will get our attention.

  • One very serious end result is for people who have heart conditions; it will increase and aggravate the heart condition of angina.  Hmmm, this isn’t good when you remember that heart disease is the still the number one reason people die
  • But really, the first symptom is you are going to get the worse headache of your life.  YIPES!
  • One’s ability to remain alert is hampered.  Now, when it comes to escaping a fire, we have already discussed how important it is to get out and do so quickly, within 2 minutes or you may not be able to get out.  This is one of the reason’s why. CO is hindering your thought processes and complicating getting to safety.
  • You’ll feel lightheaded and dizzy
  • Feel confused
  • Feel like you have the flu
  • Feel weak
  • Feel like you can’t catch your breath

Larger concentrations will cause

  • Loss of consciousness (ah ha another good reason to get out of the house fast)
  • Severe affects to the fetus if you are pregnant
  • Seizures
  • Coma
  • Significant toxicity of the central nervous system and heart
  • Death

Effects of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Can Be Reversed

The good news is that the condition of carboxyhemoglobin will in time go back to hemoglobin on its own but its far better to be treated at the hospital for this poisoned condition of your blood.  Remember some organs that cannot function with a reduced O2 supply could be permanently impaired.  For the most part, we treat CO poisoning with a higher perfusion of oxygen by inhalation or in a hyperbaric chamber.  The process is to increase the O2 concentration which will drive off the CO from the blood cells and return the hemoglobin to its normal levels of oxygen.  Oxygen, in essence, becomes the antidote for the poisoning.Why is carbon monoxide dangerous?

If it is not treated at the hospital then the symptoms can last for days while the body induces its cleansing process.  I have read that once poisoned weeks later latent neuropsychiatric symptoms can surface.  Think of it this way, while the brain wasn’t receiving oxygen this has affected its function so symptoms like apathy, depression, anxiety, PTSD, irritability, impulsivity, mania and psychosis will surface.  That’s some pretty scary stuff.

What’s a Good Mom and Dad Supposed to Do?

I’m guessing you already have this taken care of.  One of the things I am doing is to fine tune and modify our home’s fire escape plan.  FOUR things are important to me.

  1. Protect our lungs with an escape mask, giving another layer of protection to get out of the house and reducing the impact of toxins in the air we are breathing
  2. Develop your plan and exercise it. DRILL! DRILL! DRILL! What we practice we know!
  3. Ensuring rapid exit from the home; everyone should know two ways out of every room
  4. Make sure your smoke alarms are working; test them monthly and replace them every ten years

So now that we have looked closely at why carbon monoxide is dangerous we can see that in a house fire the concentration of this air contaminant can reach very high levels and rapidly cause serious effects.  Testing at fires has shown concentrations in excess of 3,000 ppm so this is no joke, a serious problem as the fire takes off and exponentially grows.  The CO poisons us by not allowing our blood to carry oxygen, the CO molecule grabs onto the blood cell and then O2 cannot get to the tissues of our body because it’s loaded with CO instead.  If you are being exposed to CO you will have a killer headache once the concentration becomes significant and feel nauseous, possibly confused, and dizzy.  You are already in BIG trouble if you are experiencing these symptoms.  Larger concentrations can cause you to pass out, lose consciousness.  No wonder folks die in house fires.

Why is carbon monoxide dangerous

With solid information on which we take action this contaminant will never become an issue for you and your loved ones!

Do your homework, okay?  Why not go and check out the homework I have done on the escape mask I recommend.  I hope you will see it as I do, giving an edge to get us all out of the house safely and quickly.

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It is my hope and prayer you NEVER face a fire emergency.  But house fires do happen for many reasons which we covered in the post about fire safety.   Please do let me know how I can help you stay on top of this very important task for your family.  You can contact me here or leave your comment below.

6 Responses to “Why IS Carbon Monoxide Dangerous? Fact is, in a house fire it’s BIG trouble.

  • Hello, I’m really happy I found such a useful post. I’m a chemist so I’ve studied a lot the effects of Carbon Monoxide on the human body, and sadly there are many people who die because of a small mistake, like forgetting the gas is turned on. The problem is that you don’t feel you’re feeling sick until it’s pretty late, so you’re right to call it “the invisible killer”.

    I’m glad to see you have a home escape plan, this is very good for your family’s safety.

    • Linda

      Hello Ashley, yes you have this so right! It’s both sad and tragic, that even very small mistakes can have such disastrous effects.

      I very much appreciate that as a chemist you found my post to be useful. THAT is exactly what I was aiming for. I hope others will see it as containing sufficient content so they can make the smartest decisions to protect their loved ones should they ever face a fire in their home. Its something we hope will never happen to us, but the statistics prove the possibility exists.

      It all begins with that home escape plan, without it the risks won’t have been adequately addressed and all of the little glitches could be missed. Drilling to a plan also helps to eliminate fear and panic. Thanks for dropping in.


  • We have a carbon monoxide detector in our house, but the batteries have died. I was going to replace them but wanted to learn a bit more about carbon monoxide poisoning and why it is dangerous.

    After reading several articles, including yours, I am going to be replacing those batteries right away. It’s not a risk I want to take. Although I had no idea the effects were reversible. I am happy to hear that.

    Thanks for the great info!

    • Linda

      Hi Simone!

      I am glad you have found this information helpful. I am planning a post about carbon monoxide monitors soon.

      While it is true that the effects of CO poisoning are reversible, it is important to remember even as this article states that nuerological effects can surface weeks later. This means that any exposure to high concentrations of carbon monoxide is absolutely dangerous and its better to reduce and remove the exposure every way we can. After all, we are talking about a lack of the critically important transport of oxygen to the body.

      Treatment is important the higher the exposure concentration. Do let me know if you have any other questions and how I can help.


  • Great Article and you are very true Carbon Monoxide is a silent killer. My mom is 70 years old and she heats with gas wall heater and I worry everyday about her and trying to make sure she has proper ventilation and the detectors. I know I worked at lowes one time and we went out for free and installed over 200 fire detectors and carbon monoxide detectors. I think that we need to step up and take care of people and make sure that they understand the dangers of carbon monoxide and having the detectors in their house with fresh batteries. Keep up the great work you are doing something amazing

    God bless

    • Linda

      Hello Allen!

      Thank you for taking time to drop in and leave a comment on my post about carbon monoxide. What a great contribution you have made by engaging in a community outreach when employed by Lowes. AWESOME!

      I certainly hope my reach can support others with good decisions about protecting their homes with monitors and staying safe when exposures can and do happen. You know what’s crazy, that most folks don’t realize that even cigarette smoke can increase carbon monoxide in their blood. No wonder smolking and second hand smoke contributes to heart attacks, low levels of O2 surel affects the muscular capacity of that critically important muscle.

      Stay well and thanks again for your encouraging comment.


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