The Chemistry and Science behind Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Carbon monoxide is a deadly gas that cannot be seen, smelt or tasted. This invisible hazard is a potential killer, and even if it doesn’t kill it can cause serious damage when breathed in to the body. It does this by displacing the oxygen in the blood and effectively starving the body’s vital organs of oxygen, thus destroying cells.

When it is breathed in, carbon monoxide reacts with the haemoglobin in red blood cells and forms carboxyhemoglobin (COHb). The bond between carbon monoxide and haemoglobin is two hundred times stronger than that of oxygen and haemoglobin. The carbon monoxide is therefore able to displace the oxygen levels in the blood with ease. The lack of oxygen results in organs such as the brain, heart an lungs starving of oxygen and suffering serious or even permanent damage. The damage caused by the carbon monoxide depends upon the levels of carbon monoxide that have been breathed in.

The replacement of oxygen with carbon monoxide can cause severe symptoms and poisoning, and some of the symptoms can be very difficult to diagnose due to their non-specific nature. Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are often mistaken for flu or food poisoning.

The percentage of COHb in the body can determine the type of symptoms or levels of damage that may be experienced. At around 10-30% headaches dizziness, fatigue and flu-type symptoms may be experienced. At the next level, which is around 30-50%, sufferers may experience nausea, vomiting, headaches and breathing difficulties. At over 50%, sufferers may experience loss of consciousness, seizures, and convulsions, and at these levels the sufferer can quickly die.

If breathed in at large enough levels, this deadly gas can kill in just a few minutes. If breathed in at smaller levels but over a longer period of time, this gas can still lead to death or permanent damage.

 

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