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© November 25, 2007  

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Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
What Every Live Steamer Needs To Know


NOTE: A colleague of ours and an great guy who I've worked with on many occasions nearly died in a carbon monoxide poisoning incident.  He was overcome by carbon monoxide while testing his propane fired locomotive in his shop (November, 2007). He spent a week in the hospital and is doing much better but still faces a long period of recovery. His close brush with death can serve as a wake-up call to all of us about the dangers of this silent killer.


Written by Jim O'Connor

Carbon monoxide poisoning

Carbon monoxide poisoning, most everyone knows, is caused by breathing carbon monoxide gas.  Carbon monoxide (CO) is colorless, odorless, tasteless, and non-irritating which makes it nearly impossible for us to detect.  Carbon monoxide is a very toxic gas and is listed as the most common type of fatal poisoning in the US and other industrialized countries. Carbon monoxide attacks primarily the brain, central nervous system and heart.

How does CO happen? It's not a major by-product of burning fossil fuels as most people think.  A clean burning flame, like we want in our live steam boilers, produces primarily carbon dioxide (or CO2). CO2 is an inert gas found in soda-pop and in the earth's atmosphere (the "greenhouse gas").  Carbon monoxide is that poisonous gas that's produced when burning fuels under low oxygen levels (or malfunctioning equipment).  Low oxygen does not allow complete combustion of the fuel.  There's not nearly as much danger when you operate your car, home heating system or live steam engine in an oxygen rich environment.   But if you have little or no fresh air to support combustion, your flame will feed on it's own fumes. In this situation, the CO levels will build quickly.

It's In The Blood

When carbon monoxide is inhaled, it takes the place of oxygen in our red blood cells.  Carbon monoxide binds to hemoglobin in our cells 240 times more strongly than oxygen causing oxygen deprivation throughout the body.

CO Poisoning Symptoms

Exposure to carbon monoxide will reduce oxygen to the brain causing the victim to be confused and not able to assess his condition or understand he is in trouble.  Continued exposure will produce unconsciousness and brain damage or death.  In sudden, high levels of exposure symptoms could include weakness and dizziness.  These may be the only symptoms preceding collapse.  Lower levels of exposure over a longer term will produce headache, dyspnea on exertion, decreased manual dexterity, impaired judgment and memory, irritability, emotional instability, dizziness, fatigue, headache, drowsiness, confusion, nausea, vomiting, palpitations, and impaired vision and hearing.  Click here for a complete list of symptoms.

First Aid

What if you find a CO poisoning victim?  Remove the victim immediately from the exposure without endangering yourself (we don't want two dead people).  Call for help!.  If the victim needs CPR, start administering it.  The ambulance EMTs will administer oxygen if they suspect CO poisoning.  It's not always easy to spot CO poisoning, so be sure to tell them.

Prevent CO Poisoning

You've heard this a thousand times.  Use equipment that burns fuel in a well-ventilated area.  What you may not realize is that equipment that burns propane will produce CO if fired in an enclosed area even if only for a minute or two.  Coal will do this, too, but with coal you get smoke that's an indication as to the level of fumes or gasses in the area.  Watch out for those “torpedo heaters” or “salamanders”.  These heaters should never be used indoors.  Do not run generators or pumps indoors or near the house.  Be aware of fireplaces and wood burning stoves.  Those little gas fired infrared heaters that burn LP or NAT gas can also produce CO.

Have your gas-burning furnace checked for a defective heat exchanger using an inspection camera.  An inspection mirror is not good enough.  Have the draft on your furnace and gas water heater checked, too.  A blocked chimney or flue pipe sends hundreds of people to the hospital each fall and winter.

If your group is planning to demonstrate live steam equipment indoors, be aware of the need for ventilation and monitoring.  If you can't do it safely, don't do it.  Use compressed air as an alternative to steam.

CO Detectors

Usually installed in homes, carbon monoxide alarms should be placed near heaters and other equipment. Carbon monoxide alarms do not need to be placed near ceiling level.  In the event a high level of CO is detected, an alarm sounds. You may ventilate the area or leave the building right away.  The Consumer Product Safety Commission says  “Carbon monoxide detectors are as important to home safety as smoke detectors are” and recommends each home have at least one carbon monoxide detector.  I found this one on Amazon for about $30.


Written by Jim O'Connor


Information sources:



Give a CO detector to someone you love.



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