Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Carbon monoxide poisoning accounts for more than 50,000 emergency room visits each year in the United States, and is one of the leading causes of global poisoning death. Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless, and tasteless gas. Carbon monoxide poisoning occurs when it is inhaled and carbon monoxide builds up in the bloodstream. The oxygen in red blood cells is replaced with carbon monoxide. This prevents oxygen from reaching your tissues and organs which can lead to permanent damage.

Carbon monoxide is produced by various fuel-burning products, such as burning diesel fuel, gasoline, wood, propane, or charcoal. Carbon monoxide is produced by engines, furnaces, heating units, and welding operations. Normally the amount of carbon monoxide produced by these sources isn’t a cause for concern.  Problems typically arise when the sources are used in an enclosed or partially enclosed space where the carbon monoxide can accumulate to dangerous levels.


The internal combustion engine is the primary source of workplace exposure to carbon monoxide. Workers exposed to buses, locomotives, trucks, cars, forklifts, compressors, and other equipment powered by gasoline, diesel, or other fossil fuels may be at risk for carbon monoxide poisoning. While diesel fuel combustion engines produce lower levels of carbon monoxide than gasoline engines, these emissions can still generate lethal amounts of carbon monoxide given a sufficient amount of time in an enclosed space. Carbon monoxide makes up anywhere from 2% to 12% of diesel exhaust gases.


Common symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning may include:

Oil Field Worker

  • Headache
  • Weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Drowsiness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Shortness of breath
  • Confusion and impaired judgment
  • Personality changes or extreme mood swings
  • Clumsiness or difficulty walking
  • Blurred vision
  • Loss of consciousness

Depending on the degree and length of exposure, carbon monoxide poisoning can cause debilitating effects on the body, brain and heart. High exposure may be life-threatening leading to convulsions, coma, or death. It’s important to recognize these early warning signs because as exposure increases, symptoms will reduce a person’s ability to escape. 


If you think you or someone you’re with may have carbon monoxide poisoning, get into fresh air immediately and seek emergency medical care. If you have carbon monoxide poisoning, you should receive several hours of administration of 100% oxygen. If you have severe carbon monoxide poisoning and are unconscious, you may be connected to a respirator or may be treated in a pressurized hyperbaric chamber.

To confirm the diagnosis of carbon monoxide poisoning, your doctor will draw blood and perform a blood gas test which allows your doctor to determine the levels of carbon monoxide in your blood. Additional tests may be needed depending on your specific symptoms such as an EKG, MRI, or CT scan.

Short term effects of carbon monoxide involve symptoms such as headaches, heart palpitations, and other basic symptoms that will generally cease after treatment. However, longstanding effects of carbon monoxide may include injuries to the central nervous system, toxic encephalopathy, memory loss, balance problems, and COPD. As many as two out of three people who suffered severe carbon monoxide poisoning may have long-term neurological problems. Additionally, as many as one in five people who had mild to moderate poisoning can develop lasting neurological problems, ranging from mild personality changes to severe intellectual impairments. Carbon monoxide poisoning in pregnant women can cause fetal death or cerebral palsy in the child.

After a carbon monoxide poisoning occurs, your doctor should ask about the condition of fuel-burning appliances and equipment in your home and at work, the quality of ventilation in those areas, the length of exposure, whether your symptoms improve when you leave the area, and whether any of your family members or co-workers present similar symptoms.


Simple precautions can help carbon monoxide poisoning. Here are some suggestions to reduce your risk of carbon monoxide poisoning:

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

  • Install carbon monoxide detectors
  • Use gas appliances as instructed
  • Keep fuel-burning appliances and engines properly vented
  • Ventilation – always run your building’s ventilation systems
  • Training
  • Maintenance
  • Air Monitoring
  • Safe work practices, including identifying all possible sources of carbon monoxide with co-workers or enlisting the support of your local health and safety committee or union


  • $4,430,000 verdict – a 52 year-old truck driver died from carbon monoxide poisoning after being exposed to carbon monoxide while he slept in the cab of his truck.  The truck driver’s autopsy revealed he had 67% carbon monoxide saturation in his blood.  This was a product liability action against the manufacturer of the truck, Freightliner.
  • $2,540,000 verdict – A truck driver noticed two small holes in the floorboard beneath the driver’s seat and that his cab smelled of diesel exhaust fumes.  The truck was taken in for inspection.  A mechanic examined the truck for a diesel exhaust leak but made no repairs.  The driver was sent out on the road and the exhaust issues continued.  After repeated repairs, the exhaust leak was eventually discovered and corrected.  But not before the driver suffered permanent neurological damage and a heart attack.  The neurological damage included memory loss, personality changes, and changes to the white matter in the brain.  CR England, who leased the truck to plaintiff and pressured him to continue operating the truck, was the named defendant.
  • $1,000,000 settlement – 57 year-old sandblaster breathed carbon monoxide fed to him by an old air compressor.  Plaintiff decedent was sandblasting large concrete panels and unbeknownst to him, he continually breathed in the odorless, colorless, tasteless poisonous carbon monoxide which eventually caused him to collapse and die.  The manufacturer of the compressor, the manufacturer of the compressor hose and the company who maintained the compressor were the named defendants.
  • $900,000 settlement – 23 year-old warehouse worker suffered an acute carbon monoxide exposure while operating a propane-powered fork lift with inadequate ventilation.  After three hours of operating the fork lift, plaintiff was unsteady on his feet, experienced shortness of breath, blurred vision, headaches and ultimately a loss of consciousness.  Blood tests at the hospital revealed carboxyhemoglobin level at 32.5%.  Despite appropriate medical treatment, including treatment in a hyperbaric chamber, plaintiff was eventually diagnosed with frontal lobe syndrome secondary to acquired organic brain damage arising from carbon dioxide exposure.  Longstanding symptoms included chronic headaches, gait disturbances, dizziness, memory loss, cognitive problems and emotional difficulties.
  • $850,000 settlement – 54 year-old trade contractor hired to perform an asbestos abatement inhaled high levels of carbon monoxide after standing in close proximity to a propane-powered scarifier machine.  Plaintiff was treated at a hospital, including being placed in a hyperbaric chamber, but he still developed chronic cognitive and concentration deficits, tremors and psychiatric problems.  The seller and distributor of the scarifier machine was named as defendant along with the managers of the construction project.
  • $500,000 settlement – a sanitation worker in his 40’s suffered carbon monoxide poisoning while operating a mechanical broom sweeper for the New York City Department of Sanitation.  Plaintiff later developed intermittent explosive disorder and organic personality disorder.  He became prone to fits of rage against family members and strangers resulting in hospitalization and the break up of his marriage.


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