Carbon Monoxide: It’s Not Just at Home

January 7th, 2012

It’s winter and we’re all hearing from the media about being careful with our indoor fuels. People die from carbon monoxide poisoning, an odorless and colorless gas produced from the incomplete combustion of fuels. My introduction to this issue was back when I was in college and an employer died from failing to turn off his car, left running in a garage beneath his bedroom. It’s no joke and I was amazed to learn just how low a level of exposure can bring harm to an individual.

I recently noticed fumes coming into my car which hadn’t previously been detectable. The effects were similiar to symptoms experienced in residences which had required adjustments be made to stoves or furnaces causing measurable elevations in CO levels. These days, CO meters run on batteries and don’t have to be welded to a household surface, so I bought a Kidder (model) and checked it occasionally as I drove around the region. It has the advantage of being able to report current and peak levels at the touch of a button.

Checking the peak level reading, it indicated levels of carbon monoxide had reached 54 parts per million during this particular trip. This is in excess of levels at which harm can occur for the typical adult. While it ought to be expected that drivers will be exposed to higher CO levels than you’d expect to see in your home, such awareness is crucial in determining whether or not your exhaust system requires repairs, how long a drive you should take before those repairs are done and whether or not you drive with a toddler in the back seat.

Looking up expected levels under traffic-laden conditions, I came across this study in which levels of CO were measured in the Ted Williams Tunnel located in the Boston area. To my surprise, the levels were well within the boundaries of safe exposure as per the resources cited above. Other references demonstrated that levels in cars during operation were quite variable depending upon traffic conditions. Unfortunately, sampling data was rather small for any degree of certainty. The levels I experienced still exceeded those noted.

At home, don’t expect your average meter to tell you when harmful levels are present. The typical alarm feature requires up to an hour of exposure at two to three times the harmful level before it rings. Having a meter that allows you to read measurements anytime you wish to check is an essential feature of such appliances and well worth the cost of purchase.

Categories: Letters

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