Preventing carbon monoxide poisoning: Vancouver Coastal Health

Hyperbaric chamber Photos: VCH

NINETEEN-YEAR-OLD Arlene Nguyen won’t forget the day she was poisoned by carbon monoxide.

“I was home with my brother and we both started shaking, become dizzy and lightheaded, and our speech was slurred.” 

Fortunately, Arlene was able to call 911 and both she and her brother were rushed to Vancouver General Hospital where they were treated in the hyperbaric chamber.

Arlene and her brother were among the 36 patients treated in VGH’s hyperbaric chamber for carbon monoxide poisoning last year. Several other patients were seen in emergency or admitted for higher levels of care.

“Most cases of carbon monoxide poisoning are preventable,” says Dr. Bruce Campana, a hyperbaric physician at Vancouver General Hospital. “Whether it’s the gas in your furnace, the wood in your fireplace or the propane in your stove, if it burns a fossil fuel, it produces carbon monoxide.”

Vancouver Coastal Health sees more cases of carbon monoxide in the winter because people are using their furnaces and fireplaces to keep warm. However, carbon monoxide poisoning can occur at any time of the year, and people can even be overcome by carbon monoxide when water-skiing behind a boat. 

Carbon monoxide alarm

Carbon monoxide is often called the silent killer because it doesn’t smell, it’s invisible and if you inhale too much, it can be deadly. Vancouver General Hospital has the only government-approved and medically-supervised public hyperbaric chamber in BC, and receives patients from across the province. 

The hyperbaric chamber looks like a submarine, but it’s a high-tech piece of medical equipment where the atmospheric pressure can be raised or lowered by compressors, allowing the operators to increase blood-oxygen levels.

“Increasing oxygen in the blood of carbon monoxide patients helps get rid of carbon monoxide and promotes healing,” says Campana. “While we are grateful to have this unique medical device, prevention is the key.

Arlene Nguyen’s family now has working carbon monoxide detectors in their Vancouver home. “Being poisoned by carbon monoxide was definitely a wakeup call,” says Arlene.  “It happened so quickly; I urge everyone to get a carbon monoxide detector.”

Facts about carbon monoxide

1) What is carbon monoxide (CO)?

Carbon monoxide is a colourless, odourless gas produced by the burning of ANY fossil fuel. It doesn’t smell, it’s invisible, and if too much is inhaled, it can be deadly. It is often referred to as “the silent killer”.

2) Can electric heaters cause CO poisoning?

No, unless they cause a fire.

3) Can natural gas or propane cause CO poisoning?

Yes! Any fossil fuel (gasoline, natural gas, propane, butane, oil, kerosene, wood, charcoal, even methanol) will release CO when burned.

4) Is carbon monoxide the same as carbon dioxide?

No. Carbon dioxide is exhaled when you breathe, and is not poisonous. Carbon monoxide is very poisonous, and is responsible for more deaths every year than any other gas.

5) How does CO poisoning show up?

Common symptoms include headache, dizziness, nausea and vomiting. More severe cases can cause seizures, heart attacks, loss of consciousness, irreversible brain damage, and death. In early stages, it can be difficult to tell apart from food poisoning. If multiple people in a home or office feel sick at the same time, always consider CO poisoning.

6) How can I prevent CO poisoning?

Make sure all furnaces, fireplaces, and gas ranges are properly vented. An annual check by a professional is recommended. Except for a fireplace and a professionally installed gas cooktop, don’t burn indoors. Never use a barbecue or gas heater inside. Never run a generator or gas powered pressure washer inside, even in a garage. Your house will not have the ventilation needed to run any gas engine inside, ever.
Get a CO detector. Better yet, get more than one. Put them near the main living area. Carbon monoxide often kills people while they sleep, so also having detectors near all bedrooms is recommended.

7) I have a smoke detector. Is that the same as a CO detector?

No. You should have both, as you can have smoke suggesting a fire without much CO, or have dangerous amounts of CO without smoke. Many companies sell a combined unit. If you’re not sure, ask someone at the store. 

8) What should we do if the CO detector sounds an alarm?

The safest thing to do is get everyone out of the house into fresh air, and call 911. The fire department can check the home for CO levels, and advise you if it is safe or not.

9) How is CO poisoning treated?

First, get everyone to a safe area. Call 911 as soon as possible. First responders will apply oxygen. In severe cases, patients may need to go to a hospital. Some may need treatment in a hyperbaric chamber. 

10) Where can I get more information about CO poisoning?

https://www.healthlinkbc.ca/health-topics/hw193731

https://www.technicalsafetybc.ca/public-safety/carbon-monoxide-safety