We will not bore you with the chemical details of what carbon monoxide actually is. Instead we will point you to what it does to you and how it can be so damaging.
Carbon monoxide is given off when a fuel is burned inefficiently. This fuel generally speaking will be a fossil fuel but can also include logs, such as used in a log burning stove. Fossil fuels are substances like petroleum or gasoline, diesel gas, natural gas propane and oil. If the appliances that are burning these types of fuels are not working correctly then they do not burn the fuel efficiently. As a result they can produce carbon monoxide.
The problem is that fuel burning appliances need oxygen in order to burn efficiently and the more carbon monoxide that is produced from an inefficient appliance the less oxygen is left to burn. Therefore the situation becomes worse and worse!
Unfortunately, your body has an affinity to carbon monoxide that is 240 times greater than that of oxygen. That is to say, if there is carbon monoxide in the atmosphere your body will suck it up like a sponge. We all know that every cell and every organ contained in the body needs oxygen in order to survive. When carbon monoxide is ingested into your body through breathing the carbon monoxide binds to haemoglobin in your blood cells. The haemoglobin is responsible for transporting oxygen around the body and in binding to your haemoglobin the carbon monoxide effectively stops the blood transporting oxygen around the body. So every cell and organ in the body will be starved from oxygen. Carbon monoxide also poisons at a cellular level so not only is your body starved of oxygen but it was also being poisoned as well.
Carbon monoxide can be measured by drawing blood and the measurement given is called carboxyhaemoglobin. This measurement determines how much saturation in your body that you have had after a carbon monoxide poisoning event. This is usually presented as a percentage figure I.E. 13% carboxyheamoglobin. We have talked elsewhere on this site about acute and chronic carbon monoxide poisoning:
- Acute exposure is where you have a very high but very short exposure from a catastrophic event, such as a boiler breaking down suddenly.
- Chronic exposure is generally when smaller quantities of carbon monoxide are ingested over a longer period of time. Scientifically it's defined as 24 hours but normally speaking it is over a much longer period of time.
There are many appliances that may give off carbon monoxide. Fossil burning fuel type appliances can include cookers or stoves, furnaces, air-conditioning appliances, water heaters, gas space heaters and both gasoline/petroleum or diesel automobile engines. As mentioned before, anything that burns logs or wood as a source of fuel can create this hazard. Carbon monoxide is therefore one of the most common poisons that you are likely to encounter in your everyday life. Unfortunately unlike many other poisons it is completely odourless, completely tasteless, and you cannot see carbon monoxide. You can therefore understand quite how dangerous this can be. You have no idea that carbon monoxide is present unless you actually measure at a site where carbon monoxide may be being produced.