By Mary Oquendo
Nothing like driving in the pouring rain with all the windows rolled down… Now why would I do something like that?
While windswept, slightly mussy hair might be attractive on someone who looks more like Taylor Swift; I look more like Kathy Bates. Good thing I’m a mobile groomer and have access to combs, brushes, and hair dryers before entering a client’s home looking less than professional.
I was driving with my windows down because it was the preferable choice as the other option was death by carbon monoxide poisoning.
I knew I had an exhaust leak, but did not realize that the hole in the pipe was directly under the cab. I had scheduled the repair for several weeks in the future for when I was on vacation. My clients would be very happy, as there would be no need to reschedule them. As the owner of an aging vehicle, my clients have gotten used to unscheduled repairs.
I was alerted to the build up of carbon monoxide in the cab by the battery operated carbon monoxide detector in my work area. The latch on the door separating the cab and my workspace was broken and I had not gotten around to fixing it. And because the latch was broken, the door would swing open while driving. Since this monitor was battery operated and not wired into the generator, it was set off when carbon monoxide gas began to spill out of the cab and fill the work area.
Had the detector been wired into the generator, it would not have alerted me as I was driving. Carbon monoxide is an odorless and colorless gas and I may not have ever realized I was being poisoned without the detector doing its job.
Why is carbon monoxide gas a problem?
When you breathe in carbon monoxide, it causes a reduction in oxygen in red blood cells. Your organs need that oxygen in the blood stream to “breathe.” This lack of oxygen suffocates your vital organs. Low levels of carbon monoxide in the air can cause permanent heart and brain damage, while high levels will kill you quickly. Even at low levels, carbon monoxide is more dangerous to you than heart or lung disease.
The half life of carbon monoxide is five hours. That means it takes five hours for half of the carbon monoxide in your body to dissipate. And then it takes another 5 hours for half of what is left to leave your body. So after 10 hours, your body is retaining 25% of the carbon monoxide you were initially exposed to.
But carbon monoxide poisoning is not limited to vehicle engine exhaust leaks. Carbon monoxide can find its way into your vehicle through:
Poorly sealed or aging floors, as well as open windows and doors. Exhaust from idling vehicles or generators can drift into your work area.
Malfunctioning or improperly vented kerosene, oil, or propane heaters. In addition to the danger of carbon monoxide build-up, they also pose a fire hazard.
Exhaust from fuel-powered equipment can be pulled into our work areas by our intake fans when lawn and maintenance companies are working at a client’s house at the same time we are there.
Initial symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning can mimic the flu. Symptoms include:
- Feeling faint
- Nausea or vomiting
- Rapid or irregular breathing
- Overall weakness
- Chest pain in people with heart disease
- Impaired judgment
Higher concentrations of carbon monoxide can cause unconsciousness, coma and death. The difference between flu symptoms and carbon monoxide poisoning is that with the flu, you don’t feel better once you leave the affected area.
By the time you notice the symptoms, it may already be too late. The longer you are exposed to carbon monoxide, the worse your personal outcome is. In addition, age, genetics, and health can play a role in how well a person reacts to carbon monoxide poisoning. In the same time frame, one person may get a headache whereas another may die.
While you may not be able to prevent carbon monoxide from entering your workspace, you can be alerted to its danger. Install battery operated carbon monoxide detectors and replace the batteries at least once a year. Detectors are easily sourced through local hardware and supply stores, as well as on online sites such as Amazon. Install this detector according to manufacturer directions.
Needless to say, the repair I scheduled during my vacation was moved up and those clients rescheduled. By the time this is in print, I should have my new grooming vehicle. I’m not sure who is more excited, my clients or myself.
Carbon monoxide poisoning is not to be taken lightly, as there are permanent – and in some cases – very permanent consequences.