Carbon Monoxide is Not Forgiving

You Know it's a Bad Day When...

Thirty years ago, I was filling compressed gas cylinders with pure carbon monoxide for a customer. Although many people aren't aware of it, pure CO (carbon monoxide) is sold for many different applications to qualified customers. At the manufacturing level, highly trained specialty gas fillers and blenders package this chemical and others like it to insure that it is properly handled as only a small leak is necessary when dealing with the pure stuff to result in sickness or death in a relatively short period of time.

No time to be scared or act like a hero. You don't know it's taking you down.

It was proper procedure for us to spray leak detection solution around the neck ring of the cylinder to check for leaks at top of the cylinder where the valve was screwed in. If the valve wasn't properly seated or torqued into place, we would see bubbles foaming up around the base of the valve. I didn't see any foam after a close inspection, and thought that I was safe.
I was filling my third cylinder when a co-worker saw me "weaving" in place. He ran over, thinking I was fainting. Something he saw when he got there caused him to scream at me. Seeing that I was about to fall over, he propped me up, flipped the Emergency Vent Valve on the manifold to dump the pressure, grabbed my hair with his free hand and violently pulled me away from the manifold. Within a few seconds he had me outside on the cylinder dock and breathing a shot of medical oxygen. The cold (it was winter) and the oxygen brought me back to reality.
Here's what happened: although there was no leak between the valve and cylinder interface, my co-worker saw a line of bubbles along the side of the cylinder. Gas was leaking along a vertical line on the cylinder side because the cylinder itself was starting to split in two!

I might have seen the danger myself, but the leaking gas was causing me to fade so quickly that I couldn't pay attention. That's the way carbon monoxide is- there's no smell, no taste, no sense of impaired breathing or functioning. You just fade away.

That co-worker saved my life. If he hadn't released the cylinder pressure, it would have continued to increase until the cylinder simply split in two. It was a cylinder manufactured in World War I and should have been taken out of service a long time ago. Back then we were filling carbon monoxide to 2000 PSIG. Nowdays the top end you'll see allowed is 1650 PSIG.

This is one example of the danger carbon monoxide poses in an industrial setting. How about in the everyday world where lay people are sometimes exposed due to faulty furnaces, etc?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Carbon Monoxide poisoning caused on average 439 deaths and more than 15,000 visits to hospital emergency departments per year from 1999-2005." Several other studies indicate that the numers might actually be much higher, but that CO poisoning is too often not recognized as the source of the emergency.
A 2009 Bulletin from the EPA pointed out that people over 65 years of age are especially vulnerable to unintentional CO poisoning due to their high frequency of pre-existing medical conditions. However, infants are also much more vulnerable than healthy middle-aged adults because of their low body weight and other factors. CO poisoning can also be highly dangerous for unborn children, greatly increasing the risk of fetal death and developmental disorders.
Not a nice gas. Next week we'll take a look at a few examples from death by accidental CO poisoning, and I'll interview an expert in the field to give us a credentialed look at how serious a problem it can be and how we can protect ourselves.