Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Symptoms

Carbon monoxide poisoning was front page news this week thanks to a story on 20/20 on January 17th.  In it, the deaths of several people in the same hotel room over time were attributed to carbon monoxide being present in their hotel room in incredible levels thanks to a faulty pool pump.

The video above is the 20/20 story on the Carbon monoxide poisoning deaths in hotel room 225, in the Best Western in Boone.

It’s safe to say these are very unusual circumstances, and that you shouldn’t be terrified of hotel room carbon monoxide levels every time you travel.  This was a very specific cause.  And to be sure, our condolences go out to those affected by the two Boone incidents, as well as anyone who succumbs to carbon monoxide poisoning.

At the same time, there potential threats in lots of places, including hotels, in your day to day life.

One of the chief challenges in dealing with carbon monoxide is that even the definitions of danger are wide ranging, and different people respond differently to rising carbon monoxide levels.  Most carbon monoxide alarms, such as the Nest Smoke Detector/CO Alarm, are REQUIRED to alarm at 70 PPM (Parts per million).  Generally, levels that size require a significant build up over time, or an instant catastrophic event, such as a blocked chimney, or malfunctioning equipment.  (See footnote at end of piece for the UL2034 requirements on carbon monoxide alarms)

However, it’s indicated that pregnant women should avoid elevated levels at all, since low birth weights have been associated with CO blood levels of 5PPM.  It’s proposed that these kinds of conditions can be achieved by long exposure to MUCH lower concentrations of carbon monoxide.  Elderly persons or those with heart conditions start to experience symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning at far lower levels than would be indicated by a UL2034 certified alarm.  There’s an interesting article from the Watauga Democrat on the subject here:

In the above article, it’s indicated that many States, including North Carolina, don’t require carbon monoxide detectors in hotels at all:

Isaacs wasted no time in calling for carbon monoxide detectors in hotels, noting that North Carolina codes currently do not require detectors in hotels and other commercial properties although they are mandated in new single-family and two-family homes.

For road warriors and frequent family vacationers, it may then behoove you to have a portable carbon monoxide detector with you when you go.  There are a lot of key differences in how permanently installed carbon monoxide detector alarms and portable carbon monoxide meters such as we manufacture, however.

Differences in Portable versus Permanent CO Detectors

On it’s face, the first key difference is in understanding that a detector is set to alert you at a specific threshold; generally 70 PPM.  Detectors that sound at lower levels are also available, but by no means make up the majority of carbon monoxide alarms purchased in the United States.  A carbon monoxide meter, such as our Inspector or our Sensordrone allow you to take readings of carbon monoxide PPM whenever you would like.  This makes them handy for checking things out when you arrive at a location, and then measuring them over time.

On our Carbon Monoxide Inspector unit, the low level alarm is set for 35 PPM, which is half that of most traditional UL2034 carbon monoxide alarms.  The CO Inspector Android and iOS apps for the Sensordrone mimic that capability.

As a personal benchmark I tested my basement this morning (where all of my heating equipment is located), and I was unable to register a reading greater that 3 PPM.  So that should indicate to all of us that a reading of 35 PPM should be concerning, and it definitely warrants further investigation.

The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) has indicated they believe that exposures to carbon monoxide in concentrations as low as 5PPM is unhealthy to sensitive persons (elderly, heart conditions, etc), and that most people shouldn’t be exposed to levels greater than 10PPM for long periods of time.  OSHA, (Occupational Safety and Healthy Administration) states that 8 hour exposures to levels of carbon monoxide greater than 35 PPM (our first alarm level) are not only concerning but considered HAZARDOUS to a worker.

When we put two and two together here, we see that a person can be in hazardous carbon monoxide conditions without most standard alarms ever sounding.

Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Lastly, it’s important to know the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Symptoms

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Symptoms:

Generally, in order, you may experience:

  1. Headache
  2. Nausea
  3. Dizziness
  4. Breathlessness
  5. Collapse
  6. Unconsciousness

Unfortunately, headache, nausea and dizziness are not by any means unique symptoms.  So you need to be aware of your environment when these things occur.  If you watched the 20/20 video above, you’ll note that the most recent victims experienced these carbon monoxide symptoms in sequential order.

In Closing

The intent of this piece is to be informative.  We’d like everyone to be aware of the risks associated with carbon monoxide poisoning.  On average, 400 persons are killed annually in the United States by carbon monoxide poisoning.  Some of those are likely intentional in the form of suicide.

So is it absolutely necessary to travel with a portable carbon monoxide detector?  No.  However, if you fall into the sensitive category or are pregnant, you may wish to consider it.  If you have any questions, please feel free to ask them below, or tweet at me: @SensorconKevin

Footnote: From ProtechSafety

38 Sensitivity Test
38.1 General
38.1.1 A carbon monoxide alarm shall operate (alarm signal) at or below the test points specified in Part
A of Table 38.1 when using the test equipment described in 38.2.1. These test points are based on plotted
limits for the 10 percent COHb curve Figure 38.1. If the alarm employs a variable sensitivity setting, test
measurements are to be made at maximum and minimum settings. For this test, three carbon monoxide
concentrations (70, 150, and 400 ppm) are to be used as specified in Part A of Table 38.1.

Carbon monoxide concentration versus time for alarm test points based on 10 percent
Carboxyhemoglobin (COHb)
Table 38.1 revised November 14, 2001
A. Carbon monoxide concentration and response time
Concentration, ppm Response time, minutes
70 ±5          60 – 240
150 ±5         10 – 50
400 ±10        4 – 15
B. False alarm – carbon monoxide concentration resistance specifications
Concentration, ppm Exposure time, (no alarm)
30 ±3         30 days
70 ±5         60 minutes

While winter isn’t technically here in North America, you’d be hard pressed to tell by looking out your window.  With the cold weather associated with winter, carbon monoxide information will start to creep into your local and national newscasts.  In most cases, that information is good and accurate.  Sometimes, however, some of the myths surrounding carbon monoxide still get passed around, even from trusted media sources.  So as far as I’m concerned, here’s the three most important things you should know about carbon monoxide.

Carbon Monoxide is Present in Your Home and Business Every Day

First off, it’s very important to understand that carbon monoxide (abbreviated as CO) doesn’t simply “show up” and cause your alarm to go off.  Unlike the smoke that causes smoke detectors to sound, carbon monoxide is always present in the air we breathe.  Secondly, even modestly elevated levels over short periods of time are not harmful to humans.

What causes problems, and what causes most modern carbon monoxide detectors to fire alerts is rising carbon monoxide levels over an extended period of time.  It’s in these kinds of situations that it can become dangerous, and in fact deadly.  To understand this, you can think of what is a common root cause of carbon monoxide poisoning: combustion engines running in confined spaces.  You may well have heard that you shouldn’t run your car in a closed garage.  Similarly, you shouldn’t use a portable generator indoors, even in a closed garage.  Those two scenarios cause rapid and consistent elevations of carbon monoxide, and very hazardous conditions for a family, and their pets.

Dangerous Carbon Monoxide Levels

Again, approximates only. Please research levels in your home carefully, and ask questions about carbon monoxide levels.

The Center for Consumer Product Safety estimates that several hundred people die in the United States annually from carbon monoxide poisoning, and several thousand are hospitalized (source)

So what is the normal level of carbon monoxide?  CO is measured in parts per million, or PPM.  This figure essentially indicates how many carbon monoxide molecules exist in a sample of 1,000,000 molecules of air.  Generally speaking, CO levels in a home are normally .5 to 5 PPM, which is obviously a very small amount.

Where you need to be careful is as you approach 70PPM.  That would be a dangerous number for some people, especially those individuals with heart conditions.  130 PPM can be potentially fatal to almost anyone.

Sources of Elevated Carbon Monoxide

As mentioned earlier, winter and cold weather tend to be common factors in carbon monoxide poisoning incidents.

In large part, this is because furnaces and fire places start to be used, and blockages in ventilation can cause dangerous carbon monoxide build ups.  So if you’re using a virtual-carbon-monoxide-inspectorportable carbon monoxide detector such as our Inspector Series, or even our Sensordrone with the CO Inspector app on your smart phone, looking around these areas with the unit is a good start.

Many times, a closed flu, whether its unintentionally left closed or somehow mechanically stuck can cause elevated CO levels in a home.  Further, build ups in chimneys can restrict air flow, and cause issues.  Check with a local chimney professional if you suspect a problem with your furnace or fire place.  NOTE:  If your CO alarm is going off, your first course of action should be leaving the home or facility, as opposed to looking for a solution.  A solution can be found later, once everyone is safe.