Carbon Monoxide Can Be Deadly Even If You're Outdoors


Story at-a-glance -

  • In the US, more than 400 Americans die each year from carbon monoxide poisoning, 4,000 are hospitalized, and another 20,000 visit emergency rooms due to exposure
  • The exhaust fumes created by the running boat’s engines contain carbon monoxide that can cause you to pass out and drown
  • Barbecue grills used at campsites may continue to release carbon monoxide for hours after you’re done cooking; never take a barbecue grill inside a tent – even if it’s cold to the touch and no longer glowing

By Dr. Mercola

Carbon monoxide (CO) is an odorless, colorless gas produced when fuels, including coal, wood, charcoal, oil, kerosene, propane, and natural gas, are burned. When you inhale this gas, it enters your bloodstream where it replaces and blocks the oxygen molecules.

If you inhale enough of it, the carbon monoxide can replace virtually all of the oxygen in your bloodstream, essentially suffocating you from the inside out. Your brain, which is especially vulnerable, may be suffocated in just four minutes after exposure to carbon monoxide.1

Initial symptoms of exposure include flu-like symptoms such as headache, dizziness, weakness, upset stomach, vomiting, chest pain, and confusion. If you're exposed to high enough levels it can make you pass out, and if you're exposed while you're sleeping (or passed out) it can kill you before you ever wake up or experience symptoms.

In the US, more than 400 Americans die each year from CO poisoning (not including cases linked to fires), 4,000 are hospitalized, and another 20,000 visit emergency rooms due to exposure.2

Many people are aware of the risks posed by carbon monoxide, which is why your home should have a battery-operated or battery back-up CO detector installed near every sleeping area. Far less widely known, however, is that it's possible to be overwhelmed, and even killed, by carbon monoxide even if you're in a seemingly well-ventilated area – like outdoors.

Teen Dies from Carbon Monoxide Exposure While Boating

TWC News reported a 15-year-old girl died while boating. She and two friends were hanging off the back of the boat, playing in the water, when the girl disappeared and drowned.

An autopsy revealed high levels of carbon monoxide in her blood, which likely came from the exhaust fumes created by the running boat's engines. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):3

"Larger boats, such as houseboats, sometimes have generators that vent toward the rear of the boat. This venting poses a danger of CO poisoning to people on the rear swim deck or water platform.

On larger boats CO builds up above the water near the water platform. CO that builds up in the air space beneath the stern deck or on and near the swim deck can kill someone in seconds.

Traveling at slow speeds or idling in the water can cause CO to build up in a boat's cabin, cockpit, bridge, and aft deck, or in an open area. Wind from the aft section of the boat can increase this buildup of CO.

Back drafting can cause CO to build up inside the cabin, cockpit, and bridge when a boat is operated at a high bow angle, is improperly or heavily loaded, or has an opening that draws in exhaust."

In addition to installing a CO detector appropriate for marine use inside your boat's cabin, the CDC recommends the following steps to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning on boats:4

Properly install and maintain all fuel-burning engines and appliances.Educate all passengers about the signs and symptoms of CO poisoning.
Swim and play away from areas where engines vent their exhaust.Watch children closely when they play on rear swim decks or water platforms.
Never block exhaust outlets. Blocking outlets can cause CO to build up in the cabin and cockpit areas – even when hatches, windows, portholes, and doors are closed.Dock, beach, or anchor at least 20 feet away from the nearest boat that is running a generator or engine. Exhaust from a nearby vessel can send CO into the cabin and cockpit of a boat.
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Barbecues May Give Off Fumes for Hours After Cooking

Another tragic story of CO poisoning was reported by BBC News.5 A couple had gone camping and cooked their meals on a barbecue safely outside of their tent, as recommended.

Several hours later, they brought the barbecue inside their tent when they turned in for the night so it wouldn't get wet in the rain or be stolen. The barbecue was cold to the touch and no glowing or smoke coming off of it, so the couple believed it to be inactive.

However, a barbecue may still give off fumes for hours after you've finished cooking. And while the carbon monoxide released while the flame is lit will be turned into carbon dioxide, which is relatively harmless, the CO produced when the flame has gone out is not burnt off. This means it can quickly accumulate to toxic levels if brought inside a cabin or tent.

Sadly, this is what happened to the couple. Hazel Woodhams succumbed in her sleep wile her partner, Roland Wessling, woke up feeling extremely ill. He was able to get help and was treated in a hospital for his extremely high carbon monoxide levels. The Gas Safety Register recommends the following tips for barbeque CO safety:

  • Never take a smoldering or lit BBQ into a tent, caravan, or cabin. Even if you have finished cooking the BBQ should remain outside as it will still give off fumes for some hours after use
  • Never use a BBQ inside to keep you warm
  • Never leave a lit BBQ unattended or while sleeping
  • Place your cooking area well away from your tent. Always ensure there is an adequate supply of fresh air in the area where the BBQ is being used
  • Only use your BBQ in accordance with the operating instructions

How Is Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Treated?

If you think you're experiencing carbon monoxide poisoning, get emergency medical help immediately. Getting into fresh air as quickly as possible is important, and once at the emergency room you'll likely be treated with a pure oxygen mask (or if you're not breathing, a ventilator), to help oxygen reach your tissues and organs.

Sometimes hyperbaric oxygen therapy is also recommended. This involves spending time in a pressurized oxygen chamber, breathing pure oxygen in a room with double or triple the normal air pressure. This helps to speed the transfer of oxygen into your blood and is often recommended to help protect heart and brain function.

A 2011 meta-analysis failed to determine whether the use of hyperbaric oxygen lowers the incidence of adverse neurological outcomes after CO poisoning compared to pure oxygen alone, which suggests more research is needed in this area.6

Still, hyperbaric oxygen is often recommended if the carbon monoxide poisoning is severe, as well as for pregnant women, since CO can be especially damaging to an unborn baby.7

Carbon Monoxide Poisonings Rise in the Fall and Winter

Accidental deaths due to carbon monoxide poisonings begin to rise in the fall and winter when cooler weather arrives. Heaters get turned up and windows get shut, trapping carbon monoxide gas, if present, indoors. And some people leave car engines running in closed spaces, either to warm up or during repairs, risking poisoning with the odorless gas.

It's estimated that close to half of accidental carbon monoxide deaths occur in January, February, and March, so be sure to be especially vigilant in maintaining your CO detectors and taking precautions during this time.8

In cases where CO levels are very slowly increasing in a home, you or your physician may mistake poisoning symptoms for the flu. One clue it's CO related is if your symptoms tend to improve when you leave your home and worsen once you've returned.

Also, if CO is the problem, all family members will be affected. Remember, if you suspect elevated CO levels, leave the home and get into fresh air immediately. If you linger, it's possible to quickly become mentally confused, lose muscle control and pass out before you have a chance to leave or call for help.

In order to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning from occurring in your home or vehicle, follow these tips from the CDC.9 This is very important, as CO poisoning is an under-recognized health risk that can be easily prevented by taking the proper precautions.

Install a battery-operated or battery back-up CO detector in your home and check or replace the battery when you change the time on your clocks each spring and fall. Have your heating system, water heater, and any other gas, oil, or coal burning appliances serviced by a qualified technician every year. Do not use portable flameless chemical heaters indoors.
If you smell an odor from your gas refrigerator, have an expert service it. An odor from your gas refrigerator can mean it could be leaking CO. When you buy gas equipment, buy only equipment carrying the seal of a national testing agency, such as Underwriters' Laboratories. Make sure your gas appliances are vented properly. Horizontal vent pipes for appliances, such as a water heater, should go up slightly as they go toward outdoors… This prevents CO from leaking if the joints or pipes aren't fitted tightly.
Have your chimney checked or cleaned every year. Chimneys can be blocked by debris. This can cause CO to build up inside your home or cabin. Never patch a vent pipe with tape, gum, or something else. This kind of patch can make CO build up in your home, cabin, or camper. Never use a gas range or oven for heating. Using a gas range or oven for heating can cause a build up of CO inside your home, cabin, or camper.
Never burn charcoal indoors. Burning charcoal - red, gray, black, or white - gives off CO. Never use a portable gas camp stove indoors. Using a gas camp stove indoors can cause CO to build up inside your home, cabin, or camper. Never use a generator inside your home, basement, or garage or less than 20 feet from any window, door, or vent.
Have a mechanic check the exhaust system of your car or truck every year. A small leak in the exhaust system can lead to a build up of CO inside the car. Never run your car or truck inside a garage that is attached to a house even with the garage door open. Always open the door to a detached garage to let in fresh air when you run a car or truck inside. If you drive a car or SUV with a tailgate, when you open the tailgate open the vents or windows to make sure air is moving through. If only the tailgate is open CO from the exhaust will be pulled into the car or SUV.