Today I want to talk to you about something many of us fear, Carbon Monoxide. This is the time of year when many of us start having to think about our furnaces, both in the camper and in the home. When that furnace comes on, if it isn’t working properly, you maybe exposed to Carbon Monoxide. I am sure you have all heard of the sad stories of people that have died from carbon monoxide, and it is no accident that these deaths occur this time of year.
But what is Carbon Monoxide, and why is it dangerous? Well, to be honest, it is nothing more than one carbon atom bonded to one oxygen atom. Very similar to what we exhale when we breath, which is Carbon Dioxide ( one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms). Carbon, oxygen and Hydrogen are often known as the building blocks of life. They are in almost everything you eat, breath or see. Heck, Water is H2O; air contains all three as does sugar! What makes Carbon Monoxide so deadly is its property of seeking bonds with other chemicals. Most importantly, it loves to bond with the Hemoglobin in the blood. In fact, it bonds many, many times more readily than oxygen. That is the root of the problem; once it bonds to the hemoglobin it doesn’t want to let go, and it replaces oxygen in the blood stream. No oxygen in the blood stream means there is no oxygen in your cells to keep them alive. Once carbon monoxide bonds to the hemoglobin, it can stay there till the blood cell dies in about 6 weeks, making that blood cell useless for carrying oxygen to things like your brain!
But where does carbon monoxide come from? Well, mostly it comes from incomplete combustion. Or to put it in easier terms — when something isn’t burning cleanly and completely, it produces carbon monoxide. One of the most famous things that doesn’t burn cleanly of course is your car; remember you mother telling you not to run the car in the garage or it would kill you? Well, your mother was right, (didn’t she always tell you she was always right?); the car burns the gas (carbon, hydrogen and oxygen mainly), and one of the by products is carbon monoxide. When you have your propane stove in your camper burning, you notice it burns with a pretty blue flame? That is complete combustion, the propane burns with the oxygen and produces heat and very, very minor amounts of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and water vapor. Now that same flame on your stove, if it isn’t burning properly, will turn yellow and/or orange. Now it is putting off much, much more carbon monoxide, and in a tightly sealed area will sooner or later raise the level of carbon monoxide. But that is a pretty small flame and a camper is not sealed that effectively. On the other hand, the flame used in your furnace and water heater are much larger, and if not burning properly produce many times the amount of carbon monoxide. This is when you run into problems.
So, what can you do to protect yourself? First off, check to see is your carbon monoxide detector is working properly. Read the owners manual and learn how to test and clean it properly. If it is over 5 to 7 years old, I would recommend getting a new one; older carbon monoxide detectors will give false alarms or no alarms. So replacing them is cheap life insurance. Second, make sure that your furnace, water heater and Oven are working properly; make sure the flue is open and there are no debris or wasp nests or anything else blocking them. You can blow air through the flue (if they have one) and make sure they are clean and open, then make sure your burners are adjusted properly; I have to say you should have them checked by a professional just to be safe, but remember clean, all blue flames are good, the more yellow and orange the worse it is. Usually the biggest problem is air movement, either taking the burnt gases away or getting oxygen to the burner. And opening the cover plate lets more oxygen in and can hide problems sometimes, but looking will give you some idea if things aren’t burning well. Just don’t think that “OH it worked last year so it will be fine THIS year”. Also remember to check your generator and its placement. The exhaust from a generator being run for hours on end produces carbon monoxide. Earlier this year there was a report of a tent camper dying from generator exhaust while camping at a NASCAR event, surrounded by other large campers and the like, which contained the deadly gas. So watch where the exhaust goes and your running hours too.
Now what to look out for. Even if you have checked your camper out and have put a new detector in, you still could have problems because carbon monoxide is colorless, odorless and tasteless. Most of the time carbon monoxide takes a while to build up and so often you don’t realize what is happening. But most of the time you will be worse over night or when inside for long periods of time. You will start to have headaches, feel lethargic, nausea and very weak. You might notice your fingernail beds and lips turning bluish and in late stages cherry red, also in the late stages there will be vomiting and unresponsiveness. If you think you or others have been exposed to high levels of carbon monoxide…. GET OUT of where you are at, into the fresh air, call for fire and EMS. Most fire companies will have portable CO detectors and, if you leave things the same, will be able to give you a exposure level from inside the camper. EMS will treat you with high flow oxygen and, if your carbon monoxide levels are high enough, advanced treatment will be needed. Once again the very young and the very old are more likely to have problems as well as those with cardiac and lung problems.
Remember to check your unit and watch for signs and symptoms, so you can protect your loved ones from this silent killer.
Your Obedient Servant,
Gary Smith, Jr.