Danger at Home: Carbon Monoxide (Pedcast)

Doc Smo here, your pedcast host. Welcome to another edition of DocSmo.com, the pediatric blog dedicated to children and families. I read a lot of medical articles about children looking for interesting new stuff to bring to my listeners, and last week I read an interesting medical article that got me thinking about my own family’s safety and possibly yours as well. The article, in the Journal of The American Medical Association, August 2013, asked and answered the question, “Can carbon monoxide, the odorless undetectable deadly gas produced when anything is burned around your home, penetrate sheet rock and walls?” The researchers discovered that the answer is a definitive YES! This toxic, often lethal gas, can easily seep all over a house without detection. In the United States, 4000-5000 people are killed every year from exposure to carbon monoxide or CO. Many of the survivors have temporary or even permanent neurologic problems as a consequence of their exposure to CO. Common sources around a home include automobile combustion, fireplaces, gas powered generators, poorly ventilated grills, camping stoves, and even underground electrical cables. This CO  is terrible stuff: undetectable, produced from any kind of combustion, and as this article points out, able to penetrate walls with ease.

To fully understand what we are talking about, let’s take a quick trip down science lane and review a little of the biology of this poisoning, shall we? You recall that the presence of a sufficient amount of oxygen is absolutely essential for cells to function normally–all our cells, including those in your child’s brain, heart, and kidney. Literally every cell in your child’s body is dependent on oxygen. Without the constant delivery of the oxygen molecule, your little bundles of joy just can’t live.  Hemoglobin, the red pigmented protein so abundant in our red blood cells, is the delivery molecule for oxygen. The oxygen atom is able to easily jump on and off this amazing hemoglobin protein and provide the spark for cell combustion wherever it is needed. When the poison CO gas is introduced into your child’s body from breathing it, it clings to the hemoglobin molecule tighter than your spandex at the gym. If the hemoglobin molecules are tightly bound to CO, guess what? They can’t carry oxygen.  We now have serious trouble in River City. Even though there is probably plenty of oxygen in the air, this CO-poisoned child can’t deliver the essential oxygen to their hungry cells and asphyxia ensues. Serious injury and even death isn’t far off when this occurs.

This article in JAMA reminded me that every parent needs to do everything humanly possible to protect their children from exposure to CO. In my house, I use the after-Xmas time, when fresh batteries are aplenty in the house, to take the time to go around and make sure every safety device has plenty of power… smoke alarms, water leak detectors, burglar alarms, and of course CO detectors. Making this my January ritual helps me remember to do it! Maybe you should do the same.

Now that we know that deadly CO gas can literally penetrate walls, every family needs to make sure they not only have one, but that it is functioning properly. CO may seep into your home from a car running in the garage, from the exhaust from a grill or fireplace, a kerosene heater, or even from some underground buried electrical cable. It’s winter, so make sure you have a functioning CO detector , get an escape ladder if you have a two story home in case of fire, make sure you have a fire escape plan that your family is familiar with, and of course, get put those new batteries in all your alarming devices.

I would love to hear your comments and stories at my blog,  www.docsmo.com.  This is Dr. Paul Smolen, reminding you that it does no harm, to have a functioning CO alarm.  Until next time.

Smo Notes:

1. Diffusion of carbon monoxide through gypsum wallboard.AUHampson NB, Courtney TG, Holm JRSOJAMA. 2013 Aug;310(7):745-6. ADCenter for Hyperbaric Medicine, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, Washington 98101, USA.