CO, an old enemy we are beginning to defeat

CarolinaFireJournal - Harris Griff Mason
Harris Griff Mason
10/18/2009 -

A better understanding of the presence of Carbon Monoxide (CO), more available training, new research, evolving equipment and shared experience are giving us the tools to finally relegate Carbon Monoxide poisoning to a manageable danger.

That’s the good news.


There are single gas monitors available that are much more affordable and simpler to use than ever before. Carrying one on every call or activity where CO might be an issue is now possible.

The other reality is the Center for Disease Control (CDC) found over 14,000 cases of diagnosed Carbon Monoxide poisoning recorded in emergency rooms in the US in 2005 (the latest year statistics available). The AMA feels there are as many as 100,000 cases of CO poisoning that are never diagnosed or misdiagnosed every year.

Through the use of monitors on every call, medical first responders are beginning to realize exposure to Carbon Monoxide is a virtual certainty for career EMS workers. Researchers are finding the body learns to assimilate Carbon Monoxide more efficiently with every exposure. That fact negates our comfort that non injurious levels of CO exposure are O.K. While we have more knowledge and better tools to work with, we obviously have to be vigilant in applying them.

The first step in being safe is to understand where our exposure is. Begin with a review of all procedures and yearly activities. Two very common exposures, for example, are backhaul or overhaul operations and medical first response. You may find these are well managed -- or there are others that present danger. Time spent looking at your potential exposure is the first step in being safer.

The next reality is to accept that CO is a constant threat -- in all seasons -- and all climates! We tend to think of CO as a cold weather problem and likely to be more of a factor for our northern states. The reality doesn’t support that. There are fewer incidents in the milder climates, but they tend to be more significant because they are less anticipated. Generators, water heaters and pool heaters are warm weather dangers. An elderly woman was killed and her rescuers hurt after an ice storm interrupted power in Tennessee this spring. A neighbor was running a gas engine generator for power and CO built to deadly levels through her open window. In another warm weather incident this spring a 59 year old man called for rescue in Santa Clara County California. He was in a building that housed a pool, in the men’s locker room. By the time CO was identified -- a pool heater exhaust had been blocked -- eight people were hospitalized, including three paramedics who had responded to the 911 call. People are killed on boats with gas engine generators every year.

The necessity to accept CO as a constant danger is a key to being safe. Catastrophic incidents related to CO exposure are relatively rare. That very fact makes CO an extremely dangerous reality. Carbon Monoxide is colorless and odorless. Familiarity through exposure to situations where CO was likely without obvious consequence has taught many of us that we can “sense” when CO will be a danger to us and others. That’s an extremely false sense of security, in fact, it’s another reason CO is so dangerous. That cavalier attitude is very likely to eventually hurt you or one of your partners. As we expand that probability through the brotherhood, we can state unequivocally that there will be deaths and cumulative consequences due to CO exposure every year. To ignore that fact is gambling that it won’t be you.

Let’s get back to the good news. There are single gas monitors available that are much more affordable and simpler to use than ever before. Carrying one on every call or activity where CO might be an issue is now possible. Almost every major electro chemical sensor manufacturer now offers simple single gas sensors that are inexpensive and easier to use. There are also portable monitors that use solid state technology available. Solid state monitors do not require calibration and have longer sensor lives -- one manufacturer guarantees five years. They are also highly automated. Less training needed for automated performance and long sensor life make these sensors very inexpensive to own. Not needing to bump test or calibrate for every use decreases the liability of owning them.

The simplicity and affordability of these single gas monitors makes it possible to carry a monitor into every medical emergency response. The dramatic saves tend to be the ones that make the news.

For example, in Milwaukee, WI this past June a call was received from a 57 year old man with a heart history. Three paramedics turned out. Shortly after entry into the building their portable CO alarm alerted. They evacuated the building, directed CO care to the patient and protected themselves. Those saves are reason enough to equip. Possibly even more important is the fact departments using portable monitors tell us they find more cases of relatively low levels of CO than they expected to find.

An elderly or ill person in a home can have symptoms while the stronger people in the same environment are not yet affected. When doing overhaul or backhaul having at least one monitor with a crew after the area is cleared and breathing devices are removed, can help to know when to move a few feet to get out of CO exposure. Users tell us they are surprised by how often that happens. A portable monitor will also protect and bring better care to patients experiencing CO poisoning.

While CO is an old enemy that isn’t going away, there are better tools available for managing the risk than ever before. If it’s been a while since you’ve looked at your exposure, please consider doing it now. CO is an enemy we can defeat.

Griff Mason is a partner with Airspace Monitoring Systems, Inc. Their company studies and manufactures monitoring equipment to protect against dangerous gases. Mason is available at
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