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We hear a lot about both carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, so what is the difference? They are very different gases because the first is everywhere and necessary for life, whereas the second is poisonous.

1.Carbon dioxide

… is what we breathe out after the oxygen we breathe in has replenished our venous blood. Its chemical symbol is CO2 because it consists of one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms. Whereas living creatures breathe it out, vegetation breathes it in, and breathes oxygen out. So that creates a good balance in the atmosphere between oxygen and carbon dioxide.

Gases and the Bloodstream

Our blood has two forms:

  • Arterial blood flowing away from the lungs through arteries and their small branches called capillaries; and
  • Venous blood flowing towards the lungs in veins and their little capillaries.

It is all the same blood of course, but arterial blood is cleaned of waste products and loaded with oxygen whereas venous blood is loaded with waste products and depleted of oxygen. When we breathe in, we allow oxygen to enter the venous blood that has just then arrived in the lungs and we allow carbon dioxide, a waste product, to leave the blood and be breathed out.

That refreshed blood is now pumped through ever-smaller arteries until it gets to the tiniest capillaries, and at that point it switches over into the tiniest veins. By now its oxygen and nutrients have been absorbed by the body and it is full of waste products like carbon dioxide. It travels in ever-bigger veins until it reaches the lungs, where our in-breaths clean it and fill it with oxygen for another trip through the body.

2.Carbon Monoxide

… is a toxic gas expressed chemically as CO because it has only one oxygen atom. It is created when a fuel burns incompletely because there is insufficient oxygen in the area. It is particularly dangerous because it is odorless and colorless and so we don’t notice its presence until perhaps too late.

Typical ways that carbon monoxide is produced are:

  • Wood or coal fires
  • Charcoal burning
  • Use of oil in a central heating system
  • Burning of kerosene, propane or natural gas

Any equipment with an internal combustion engine, such as cars, lawn mowers and portable generators, produces CO. We have all seen movies where a person commits suicide by shutting themselves in the garage with their car engine running. The engine uses up all the garage’s oxygen so the person’s blood fills up with carbon monoxide instead of oxygen and the brain is damaged to the point where it cannot keep telling the heart to beat.

Injury and Death From Carbon Monoxide

In the U.S., it is estimated that about 170 people die each year from carbon monoxide produced by equipment other than cars — water heaters, gas stoves, fires in the living room fireplace, etc. About 50 such deaths occurred after hurricane Katrina, when electric power was out for some time and other sources of heat and light were used. Not every case is fatal though, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that thousands of people are treated each year in hospital emergency rooms for carbon monoxide poisoning.

Watch this space for Part 2 on carbon monoxide next week.

If you have lost a loved one through carbon monoxide poisoning and are wondering if a defective product was the cause, such as a defective CO alarm or defective fuel-burning appliance, please contact our law office for a free case review.

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