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What I Learned From Sitting in a Bar


By W. Gifford-Jones, M.D
Created: August 20, 2012 Last Updated: August 23, 2012
Related articles: Health » Environment & Health
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Carbon monoxide detectors can be life-saving. (Tim Boyle/Getty Images)

Carbon monoxide detectors can be life-saving. (Tim Boyle/Getty Images)

Where do I get ideas for this column? It’s usually from long hours of reading medical reports, talking to researchers, searching the Internet and various sources. It’s tedious and tiring. But this week I got lucky.

I was having a drink at my favorite watering hole when a friend said to me, “You should write about a problem I know that kills people. It also makes them ill, and they don’t realize the cause of their poor health.” He then told me some tragic stories.

He went on to say, “A child vomited and appeared to be having a seizure. No one knew why. In another case, two women, swimming in a cluster of boats, suddenly lost consciousness and nearly drowned. Two others were found dead in a cabin cruiser for no apparent reason.”

He told of another person who complained of headaches only in the winter. So what was the final diagnosis? Carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning. It was the culprit in all cases.

We’ve all heard stories of depressed persons who commit suicide by sitting in a running car in a closed garage. But few people realize that gas from a cluster of boats can also generate enough CO to affect swimmers. Exhaust fumes can also flow back into the boat.

And if you suffer from headaches, fatigue, and general malaise only in the winter, it may be due to your wood-burning stove, a defect in the heating system, or a blocked chimney that’s filling the air with CO.

This year, 500 people will die from CO poisoning in North America, and another 40,000 will require hospital treatment. That’s because victims are unaware that CO is present, as it has no odor, color, or taste.

The only protection is a carbon monoxide detector. Studies show that although most people have smoke alarms, 50 percent of households do not have a CO detector.

My friend’s task is to inspect homes to determine if CO presents a hazard. He told me that some people live on the edge without knowing CO is present and causing their health problems.

CO gas is measured in parts per million (ppm), and 9 ppm is considered to be a health hazard. Since cigarettes emit carbon monoxide, home inspections often show 8 to 10 ppm. Small wonder that smokers often complain of headaches and feel tired all the time.

One of my friend’s remarks reminded me of the bingo-brain syndrome. A woman complaining of mental confusion was admitted to the hospital. She smoked two packs of cigarettes daily and was an ardent bingo player three nights a week. Further research revealed that of the 310 bingo players involved, 304 smoked. The woman’s diagnosis was CO poisoning.

Today we worry about deaths due to drunk drivers. But we may never know the number of fatalities that occur because chain smokers fall asleep from increased amounts of CO inside the car.

Few people consider the lighting of candles hazardous apart from the danger of fire. But if power fails and several are lit in a small room, CO gas is produced. So think twice if you’re planning to add romance to your life by opening a bottle of wine and lighting candles. Your partner may get a little drowsy at the wrong time.

This winter, don’t be a victim of CO poisoning. Remember that when fuels such as wood burning stoves, natural gas, oil, or kerosene have insufficient oxygen for full combustion, CO is formed and can set the stage for tragedy.

CO binds to hemoglobin in the blood 250 times greater than oxygen, and in concentrations of 12,800 ppm, you’re unconscious after three breaths!

There are several manufacturers that make both smoke and CO detectors. The detectors are a great insurance policy to protect your family. And remember, never assume that when the buzzer sounds, it’s a false alarm. Get everyone out of the house, as a few moments of exposure to CO can mean the difference between life and death.

This has been a good week. I’ll visit my favorite watering hole more often!

Dr. Gifford-Jones is a medical journalist with a private medical practice in Toronto. His website is DocGiff.com. He may be contacted at Info@docgiff.com.

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