Carbon monoxide poisoning occurs after too much inhalation of carbon monoxide (CO). Carbon monoxide is a toxic (poisonous) gas, but, being colorless, odorless, tasteless, and initially non-irritating, it is very difficult for people to detect. Carbon monoxide is a product of incomplete combustion of organic matter due to insufficient oxygen supply to enable complete oxidation to carbon dioxide (CO2). It is often produced in domestic or industrial settings by motor vehicles that run on gasoline, diesel, methane, or other carbon-based fuels and from tools, gas heaters, and cooking equipment that are powered by carbon-based fuels such as propane, butane and charcoal. Exposure at 100 ppm or greater can be dangerous to human health.
Symptoms of mild acute poisoning include lightheadedness, confusion, headache, vertigo, and flu-like effects; larger exposures can lead to significant toxicity of the central nervous system and heart, and death. After acute poisoning, long-term sequelae often occur. Carbon monoxide can also have severe effects on the fetus of a pregnant woman. Chronic exposure to low levels of carbon monoxide can lead to depression, confusion, and memory loss. Carbon monoxide mainly causes adverse effects in humans by combining with hemoglobin to form carboxyhemoglobin (HbCO) in the blood. This prevents hemoglobin from carrying oxygen to the tissues, effectively reducing the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood, leading to hypoxia. Additionally, myoglobin and mitochondrial cytochrome oxidase are thought to be adversely affected. Carboxyhemoglobin can revert to hemoglobin, but the recovery takes time because the HbCO complex is fairly stable.
Treatment of poisoning largely consists of administering 100% oxygen or providing hyperbaric oxygen therapy, although the optimum treatment remains controversial. Oxygen works as an antidote as it increases the removal of carbon monoxide from hemoglobin, in turn providing the body with normal levels of oxygen. The prevention of poisoning is a significant public health issue. Domestic carbon monoxide poisoning can be prevented by early detection with the use of household carbon monoxide detectors. Carbon monoxide poisoning is the most common type of fatal poisoning in many countries. Historically, it was also commonly used as a method to commit suicide, usually by deliberately inhaling the exhaust fumes of a running car engine. Modern automobiles, even with electronically controlled combustion and catalytic converters, can still produce levels of carbon monoxide which will kill if enclosed within a garage or if the tailpipe is obstructed (for example, by snow) and exhaust gas cannot escape normally. Carbon monoxide poisoning has also been implicated as the cause of apparent haunted houses; symptoms such as delirium and hallucinations have led people suffering poisoning to think they have seen ghosts or to believe their house is haunted.
Carbon monoxide is not toxic to all forms of life. Its harmful effects are due to binding with hemoglobin so its danger to organisms that do not use this compound is doubtful. It thus has no effect on photosynthesising plants. It is easily absorbed through the lungs. Inhaling the gas can lead to hypoxic injury, nervous system damage, and even death. Different people and populations may have different carbon monoxide tolerance levels. On average, exposures at 100 ppm or greater is dangerous to human health. In the United States, the OSHA limits long-term workplace exposure levels to less than 50 ppm averaged over an 8-hour period; in addition, employees are to be removed from any confined space if an upper limit ("ceiling") of 100 ppm is reached. Carbon monoxide exposure may lead to a significantly shorter life span due to heart damage. The carbon monoxide tolerance level for any person is altered by several factors, including activity level, rate of ventilation, a pre-existing cerebral or cardiovascular disease, cardiac output, anemia, sickle cell disease and other hematological disorders, barometric pressure, and metabolic rate.