Medical Fitness for Driving
Risk of Carbon Monoxide Poisnong

The Risk of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning - Symptoms & Driver's Health

Updated Dec. 11, 2020

Unintentional carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning is responsible for roughly 500 fatalities and 15,000 emergency room visits around the United States every year. A large portion of these poisoning cases are caused by motor vehicle exhaust emissions. All drivers must be aware of the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning and be able to spot the symptoms when it occurs.

Carbon monoxide is practically impossible to detect as it is clear and has no smell or taste. This silent killer can have a devastating effect on the body when large quantities are inhaled, or when smaller amounts are inhaled regularly. The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning often go ignored until it is too late, as the affected person attributes their health problems to some other ailment.

Sources of carbon monoxide

Carbon monoxide is emitted as part of a chemical reaction when fuel (such as diesel or petrol) burns; it is a waste gas produced by internal combustion engines, such as those found in fuel-powered motor vehicles. When a person breathes in carbon monoxide, it is absorbed into the bloodstream via the lungs and transported around the body.

Every tissue and cell in your body relies on oxygen to function. As carbon monoxide levels in the blood increase, oxygen decreases. If too much carbon monoxide is taken in, vital organs such as the heart and brain will be starved of oxygen and will begin to shut down.

The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning

The initial symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include:

  • Drowsiness or fatigue
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Headaches
  • Difficulty concentrating

The concentration of the carbon monoxide and the length of time a person has been exposed will determine how badly they are affected by these symptoms. In severe cases, carbon monoxide poisoning can lead to loss of consciousness and death.

High-risk groups

Everyone is vulnerable to carbon monoxide poisoning, though certain groups of people are more at risk than others. Babies, young children, unborn babies, the elderly and people with chronic heart conditions or respiratory diseases (such as asthma or COPD) are more likely to be affected by low levels of carbon monoxide than fit and healthy adults or adolescents.

Always be particularly alert to any high-risk person exhibiting possible carbon monoxide poisoning and get them checked out right away. If it is safely possible, take them out of the vehicle and into fresh air immediately.

Infants will succumb to carbon monoxide poisoning extremely quickly. Never leave a child alone in a vehicle while the engine is running, even for a moment.

Carbon monoxide poisoning causes crashes

The full impact of unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning on human life is difficult to measure. A person may become sick or die due to the harmful effects of carbon monoxide on their body, though this is not the only way this lethal gas causes fatalities. As carbon monoxide poisoning results in mental and physical symptoms, it can hinder a person’s ability to drive and increase their chances of being involved in an accident or collision.

Studies show that even very mild cases of carbon monoxide poisoning will adversely affect a person’s driving ability. People who are suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning have trouble thinking quickly or clearly, are easily confused and have a slower reaction time. Sometimes these symptoms are so subtle that a person may not notice their impeded driving ability or realize the danger they are in until it is too late. If you persistently feel mentally “foggy” or physically under the weather while driving, get yourself checked out by a doctor.

Carbon monoxide poisoning in vehicles

Numerous things can lead to vehicle-related carbon monoxide poisoning. Any situation which traps carbon monoxide around a vehicle once it has left the exhaust, or blocks the exhaust pipe, can cause carbon monoxide poisoning. Mechanical failures in the exhaust system are also major contributors, as carbon monoxide could leak into the vehicle internally before it has a chance to be properly vented.

Here are some of the most common causes of vehicle-related carbon monoxide poisoning:

  • Defective exhaust systems
  • Running the engine when the exhaust is blocked by snow or other debris
  • Poorly tuned engines or defective emission systems
  • Running the engine or driving with an open tailgate or trunk lid
  • Driving a vehicle with holes in the body
  • Running the engine in a garage or another enclosed space

Regular servicing by a qualified mechanic is the key to keeping your vehicle safe and detecting any potentially dangerous exhaust malfunctions before they become a threat to your health. This is particularly important in older vehicles.

Carbon monoxide risk in older vehicles

Drivers and passengers are more at risk of falling victim to carbon monoxide poisoning in older or poorly maintained vehicles. All modern vehicles are built with a mechanical device fitted to the exhaust system called a catalytic converter. Catalytic converters can substantially cut back on toxic emissions by converting carbon monoxide into its harmless cousin, carbon dioxide.

If you drive an older vehicle, it may not have a catalytic converter. Poorly maintained vehicles are also associated with an increased risk of carbon monoxide poisoning, as they are more likely to develop leaks in the exhaust system before the catalytic converter. The gas resulting from such a leak would have an extremely high concentration of carbon monoxide and could easily make its way into your vehicle through holes in the car body or an open window.

While we are on the subject, we must mention that holes in the car body – particularly in the floor of the vehicle – are a huge risk factor for carbon monoxide poisoning, known to be responsible for several deaths around America every year. If you want to protect yourself and your loved ones from lethal carbon monoxide poisoning, keep your vehicle in tip-top condition and have it checked out by a mechanic regularly.

Avoiding carbon monoxide poisoning

Now that you know the risks, let’s talk about what you can do to avoid vehicle-related carbon monoxide poisoning.

  1. 1

    Never warm up your vehicle or leave the engine running in an enclosed space such as a garage – even if the garage door is open.

  2. 2

    In poor weather, make sure your tailpipe is clear of mud, snow, ice and debris.

  3. 3

    Do not leave a child in a vehicle with the engine running while you are clearing ice or snow off the car.
    Children are very sensitive to carbon monoxide and will be poisoned quickly if fumes are not properly vented.

  4. 4

    Do not allow children to play behind a vehicle with the engine running, as they will breathe in lethal exhaust fumes.

  5. 5

    Leave a front window slightly open to allow fresh air into the vehicle whenever possible.
    Avoid leaving rear windows open as exhaust fumes could be sucked back into the passenger compartment.

  6. 6

    If you are sat in tightly-packed traffic, close your air vents so that other vehicle’s exhaust fumes cannot enter your car.

  7. 7

    Have your exhaust system checked out regularly.
    Even a very small leak can lead to a dangerous build-up of carbon monoxide in the vehicle.

Dealing with carbon monoxide poisoning

The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning appear very much like the symptoms of flu, viral infections, food poisoning and general fatigue – so they are often misinterpreted. If you experience nausea, headaches, tiredness, shortness of breath or dizziness regularly while in your car – and your passengers have too – it may indicate there is an issue with your exhaust system. Stop driving and get your vehicle checked out by a qualified mechanic right away.

Sudden onset of these symptoms while in your vehicle could also be carbon monoxide poisoning. If you suspect that you or anybody else in the car is suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning, get out of the vehicle immediately and see your doctor, or go to the emergency room.

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