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Carbon monoxide a stealthy killer

The carbon monoxide content of the Sago mine was determined in measurements this week to be well above the amount humans can safely breathe.

Although the body produces carbon monoxide naturally, the average person usually has less than 1 percent in their body, said Dr. Elizabeth Scharman, director of the West Virginia Poison Center. Smokers might have levels between 3 percent and 7 percent, she said.

Anything higher can spell trouble. Carbon monoxide, or CO, attacks the body on two fronts, Scharman said: by blocking the flow of oxygen to the organs and at the same time causing brain cells to breakdown.

In the lungs, CO acts more like an obstacle than a toxin by keeping oxygen from getting to other parts of the body.

After you breathe in oxygen, it catches a ride to other parts of the body on a protein-iron compound called hemoglobin. Oddly, CO, which body tissue cannot use, latches onto the hemoglobin better than oxygen, Scharman said. Since hemoglobin cannot carry both, the organs get the CO instead of the oxygen and begin to starve.

While the organs slowly suffocate, the brain cells shut down as CO causes them to — for lack of a better term — lose power, Scharman said. Cells get their power from organelles called mitochondria. Carbon monoxide erodes these tiny cell batteries.

For all its harm, CO leaves the body fairly quickly once a person makes it into fresh air, Scharman said. In fact, a person tested hours after they left a house with a CO leak might not show abnormal levels of the gas, she said.

A person being poisoned by carbon monoxide feels symptoms related to not getting enough oxygen, said Dr. Kathy Slemp, acting health officer for the West Virginia Public Health Bureau. These results might include headaches, dizziness, an irregular heartbeat, coma and death. Overexposure can result in brain damage.

How much a person can tolerate depends on the level of CO in the air, the airflow through the room, the amount of oxygen already in the area, and the size of the person among other factors.

Carbon monoxide is a sneaky little gas. Granted, a person breathing in too much is more or less suffocating, but it doesn’t feel like drowning or having a pillow held over your face, Slemp said; those are sudden interruptions in breathing. CO doesn’t interrupt breathing, but instead slowly deprives the body of the oxygen it needs to survive.

“It’s a different process,” Slemp said. “You would pass out before you had that sense of panic.”

Death from CO poisoning would be relatively peaceful, Scharman said. But the gas’ gentleness is primarily the characteristic that makes it so dangerous. Carbon monoxide has no color, taste or odor. A person can sleep in a room full of CO and never notice.

Carbon monoxide poisons scores of people each year. Common causes are house fires (usually the main cause of death); engine exhaust, particularly from boats and cars; faulty furnaces; and gas generators, Scharman said.

Many poisonings in West Virginia happen after floods, when people set up generators in their houses or attached rooms, Slemp said. In 2004, 189 West Virginians reported being poisoned by CO, more than for any other fume, gas or vapor, according to the state poison center. The next highest was chlorine gas, with 82.

The center only records calls it receives and hospital data, so the numbers most likely are higher, Scharman said. Most people living in high carbon monoxide environments usually think it’s the flu, because the symptoms — nausea, drowsiness, and headache — are similar.

Telltale signs of CO poisoning are that people usually feel better when they leave the house and everyone else in the house is sick, sometimes including pets, Scharman said.

To contact staff writer Morgan Kelly, use e-mail or call 348-1254.


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