In late autumn, emergency medical teams enter into what they call the “CO season”— a time when the number of carbon monoxide (CO) poisonings spikes due to faulty furnaces, space heaters, automobile emissions, and other environmental pollutions.
Carbon monoxide is ubiquitous in modern society. CO is a colorless, often odorless, poisonous gas given off by burning fuel, earning it the name of the “silent killer.”
You may breathe high levels of carbon monoxide near busy roads and intersections, expelled from power plants burning coal, gas, or oil, and incinerators used to burn garbage. Studies show when traffic is stopped, CO levels rise inside your car. Inside your home, CO can come from your oil, gas kerosene or charcoal furnace or space heater, wood-burning fireplace, or from tobacco smoke.
Starting in late October and November and continuing throughout the winter months, the northern hemisphere experiences a cyclic change in carbon monoxide levels. These levels rise because fuels burn less effectively at cold temperatures and the air is more stagnant in cold weather, so pollution hangs in the air like a dirty blanket.
Inside the body, the gas prevents red blood cells from carrying enough oxygen for cells and tissues to live. At high levels, CO can kill a person within minutes and is the leading cause of injury and death by poisoning worldwide, affecting about 40,000 people in the United States each year.
CO exposure can pose serious health risks, particularly in unborn babies, infants, the elderly and individuals with cardiovascular or respiratory diseases, anemia or irregular hemoglobin, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports.
CO is one of several pollutants emitted by motor vehicles that the EPA classifies as known or probable cancer-causing agents in humans. Numerous studies have shown when healthy individuals are exposed to high levels of carbon monoxide they can experience compromised vision, mental alertness, manual dexterity, learning functions, and the inability to perform complex tasks.
Infants and children may be more vulnerable to CO because their lungs are not fully developed.