Toxic Tuesdays

CHEJ highlights several toxic chemicals and the communities fighting to keep their citizens safe from harm.

Carbon Monoxide

Carbon monoxide is a toxic gas that is difficult to detect because it has no smell, taste, or color. It can be produced from both natural and human-made sources when carbon fuel – such as gasoline, wood, coal, charcoal, propane, natural gas, or trash – is incompletely burned. The most common source of carbon monoxide in outdoor air is exhaust from gas-powered vehicles. It can also be produced in indoor air through house fires or use of gas-powered appliances such as portable generators, furnaces, water heaters, stoves, and fireplaces. Carbon monoxide is also produced in industrial chemical manufacturing to create a group of plastics called polycarbonates.

When carbon monoxide enters the air it can remain there for several months. Inhaling air contaminated with carbon monoxide interferes with red blood cells’ ability to carry oxygen throughout the body. This can cause difficulty with breathing, headache, nausea, dizziness, vomiting, vision impairment, confusion, and chest pain. In high doses it can cause seizures, coma, and death. Exposure to high doses while pregnant can also cause miscarriage. People with heart or lung diseases are particularly vulnerable to the effects of carbon monoxide exposure. Even once exposure to carbon monoxide has ended, there can be long-term effects on heart and brain function.

Because of the extreme toxicity of carbon monoxide, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets standards for safe levels of carbon monoxide in the air. Despite these standards, studies estimate that 50,000 people in the United States need emergency medical treatment for carbon monoxide exposure each year, and that about 1,000 die from carbon monoxide exposure each year. Carbon monoxide has also been found in many Superfund sites identified by the EPA. These realities indicate that more stringent standards, testing, and regulations may be necessary to keep people safe from carbon monoxide.

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