Low-level CO poisoning can cause health issues

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Winter is the season where there are typically more cases of carbon monoxide poisoning. But you don't need to be exposed to a high amount of CO to get sick. 

Some people are exposed to low levels of carbon monoxide on a daily basis. Medical director of emergency at St. Luke's Health Systems, Dr. Marc Larsen, said low-level exposure is anywhere from 30 parts per million (ppm) to 40 ppm. Constant exposure can lead to illness.

"They're people who don't feel well on a chronic basis, almost like a chronic-type fatigue or a chronic flu-type illness," he said.

The symptoms will mimic flu-like symptoms initially, Dr. Larsen said, with nausea, fatigue, headache and dizziness.

Carbon monoxide affects the body by attaching to the hemoglobin in our red blood cells. That prevents oxygen from attaching. So when we breathe in too much carbon monoxide, we prevent our body from receiving fresh oxygen. Over time, Dr. Larsen said, it will begin to cause long-term damage to our tissues.

"The damage is accumulating," he said. "You may start developing some of those chronic symptoms; the memory loss, agitation, confusion, those types of symptoms."

Low-level exposure can happen when carbon monoxide is not venting out of your home properly. It may be leaking from your furnace or hot water heater.

"There's a vent on every furnace. There's a vent on every water heater," said Terry Kemper, a Quality Assurance Specialist with Metropolitan Energy Center. "However, certain conditions can cause that to maybe not vent out."

Kemper recommends homeowners get their furnaces checked to make sure it's venting properly and to ensure CO levels are not too high. He said if a furnace tests at 35 ppm, it's time to get it serviced.

Kemper said while appliances can cause problems with carbon monoxide exposure, the biggest culprit is the vehicle. Many people start their cars and leave them running in an attached garage. If the home is not sealed properly in that space, carbon monoxide can spill into the home.

"A carbon monoxide detector is cheap insurance," Kemper said.

He urges homeowners to place a carbon monoxide detector on every level of the home and make sure it's in a living area. Some can detect carbon monoxide as low as 30 ppm.

But Dr. Larsen suggests monitoring your health. If you are experiencing chronic flu-like symptoms, it might be worth it to get your home checked.

"If someone has been exposed to a low level, chronic or long-term exposure, it's really difficult to make that diagnosis," Dr. Larsen said. "A lot of it comes from history of the symptoms of the patient and then the patient's suspicions."

To learn more about carbon monoxide exposure, visit the CDC's website at  www.cdc.gov/co/ or the EPA website at www.epa.gov/iaq/co.html.
 

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