Carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning is a more common and deadly problem than you may think. Roughly 500 people die and 15,000 are sickened every year from it, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and nearly all could have been easily prevented. Consider these cases:
- An Iowa farmer died while using a gas-powered pressure washer to clean his barn. He had worked about half an hour before being overcome by CO gas.
- A 22-year-old swine confinement worker was killed by carbon monoxide gas that was emitted from a stationary high-pressure hot-water heater located inside the employee rest/wash/change room. He had simply gone inside to use the restroom.
- A Kentucky tobacco farmer collapsed and nearly died while sitting on a tobacco setter behind a slow-moving tractor for several hours. The tractor’s exhaust pipe was located under the tractor and directed the exhaust fumes toward the farmer.
Think about the gas-powered engines you might use on a daily basis, like a generator, pump, pressure-washer, tractor or truck. All of these essential machines produce carbon monoxide and can become deadly if used indoors with little or no ventilation to dissipate the noxious gas. The risk of CO poisoning exists outdoors, too, if an engine’s exhaust fumes get trapped and concentrated in an area with minimal air movement.
The risk increases in winter
If you use a gas-powered engine of any size, you’re at risk for exposure to this noxious gas. Small gas-powered engines can produce almost as much exhaust as a full-sized vehicle in a matter of minutes. Because carbon monoxide is odorless, colorless and non-irritating, it’s impossible to detect without the correct instruments. Before you know what’s happened, you can end up seriously ill or even dead.
According to the CDC, more deaths from carbon monoxide exposure occur in the winter months than at any other time. That’s because generators and space heaters are more heavily used in the colder months, and ventilation is often sacrificed for warmth. Even warming up your truck with the garage doors open for a few minutes can produce enough carbon monoxide to make you sick.
Other causes of CO poisoning
- Gas-powered pressure washers used for routine cleanup of barns, stalls and confinement areas are a common source of CO poisoning. Make sure the pressure washer is located outside, and that only the pressure water hose is run into the building.
- Holes in the exhaust systems of tractors and other farm equipment can leak carbon monoxide. Make sure the system is in good order, and that the exhaust is directed up and away from the tractor.
- Vent pipes on high-pressure hot water tanks fueled by propane that are corroded, ill fitting or disconnected can emit carbon monoxide and kill within minutes.
Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning
If you and others work around gas-powered engines or virtually any machine powered by a fossil fuel, you should keep watch for symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning even if you’re working in an open field. A person exposed to high levels of carbon monoxide typically develops: