Carbon Monoxide Poisoning: A Silent Killer
If we talk about poisoning, what usually comes to our mind is a scenario involving a victim struggling for survival while a soapy white solution is bubbling out of the mouth. Morbid as it is, this is the case for most extreme substance poisoning, but not for carbon monoxide poisoning.
What is carbon monoxide poisoning?
Carbon monoxide is naturally found in the air we breath. So, how come carbon monoxide becomes poisonous? We would like to point out that the percentage of carbon monoxide in the air is only a fraction of a fraction and its concentration has no harmful potency. Generally, carbon monoxide in the air has a natural concentration of 0.2 parts per million (ppm), but this figure may slightly vary from one area to another. However, as factors influence the air quality, levels of carbon monoxide can significantly increase creating a lethal potion of poisonous gas.
Although our body is attuned to minute levels of carbon monoxide, breathing in air with high levels of carbon monoxide can disrupt major bodily functions. As we breath in high levels of carbon monoxide, it enters our bloodstream and integrates itself with the red blood cells, now forming carboxyhemoglobin. Hemoglobin is the main protein of the red blood cells that carries oxygen to our vital organs and other body parts. But the problem is, hemoglobin is highly attracted to carbon monoxide 200 x more than oxygen, where it can easily bind itself while replacing the much needed oxygen. In a normal situation, hemoglobin integrates with carbon monoxide with no adverse affects as long as the amount of hemoglobin integrated with carbon monoxide does not exceed 2.5%. But in cases with high air contamination, the level of integration between carbon monoxide and hemoglobin can reach up to 40%. In effect, hemoglobin becomes so contaminated with carbon monoxide that it loses its ability to transport oxygen causing cellular disruption, dysfunction of organs and can possibly lead to death.
Sources of Increased Carbon Monoxide Level
Now that we know air has a small amount of carbon monoxide and has no lethal potency, we will exclude it in our list and focus on factors that can affect the level of carbon monoxide, especially when using a high-pressure sealed container like SCUBA or SCBA cylinders.
- High Pressure Breathing Air Compressor
There is no other way to fill SCUBA or SCBA cylinders but with the use of a high pressure breathing air compressor. To drive the high pressure pump required to fill cylinders, there are two form of propulsion: electric motor or combustion motor (petrol or diesel). If you are using combustion-powered motor, you can expect that carbon monoxide is emitted from the engine as a result of the combustion process. As carbon monoxide is released in the surrounding air, it has the possibility that it can enter the air intake of the compressor ending up inside the cylinder.
- Surrounding environment of the filling compressor
It doesn’t mean that by using electric motor, rather than combustion-powered, it can eliminate the possibility of carbon monoxide contamination. Not necessarily coming from the compressor itself, but the surrounding environment can also play a role in good air quality and this is particularly true if you are using long and flexible intake pipes. It all depends on the location of the intake pipe where the quality of the surrounding air will most probably be the quality of the compressed air inside your cylinder.
Just a point to ponder: Which do you think has a better air quality?
a. An air intake located along or near a busy road
b. An air intake under the shade of a tree
- Tobacco Smoking
If we fail the air quality test, we often blame it to the compressor, intake pipe or its surrounding environment. However, we forget to look at the mirror or smell our fingers and recall about that stick of cigarette we just lighted a few minutes ago. This message goes out to all smokers that smoking and filling a cylinder does not go together, which is pretty much the same with drinking and driving.
Yes, cigarette smoking produces carbon monoxide and the possibility of that extra carbon monoxide entering the compressor’s intake pipe is relatively high, especially if we are talking about a constricted environment such as a close room. But here’s the thing: you don’t need to wait and use a contaminated cylinder to feel the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning as the smoker itself is already exposed to high levels of carbon monoxide that could exceed 40 parts per million. That’s 200 times stronger that its natural concentration. So, STOP SMOKING . . . . even if you’re not filling up a scuba or scba cylinder.
Effects of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning while Diving
Knock on wood, but let us say you accidentally used a scuba or scba cylinder contaminated with carbon monoxide. Depending on the degree of contamination, your initial reaction would range from mild headache to nausea and dizziness. By this time, you should be aware that the best option for you is to discontinue the use of the said contaminated air cylinder, or in the case of scuba diving, give the “something is wrong” signal to your divemaster or buddy, ascend normally and abort the dive.
In case you disregard the early symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning and continue breathing contaminated air, breathlessness or labored breathing would immediately set in, and if not addressed, could lead to passing out, loss of consciousness and even death.
Knowing the signs and symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning would not just help you what to do, just in case you are the victim. But being aware of this situation and spotting these signs and symptoms early on to your buddy or any member of the group will significantly prevent an accident to occur.