Carbon monoxide: what it is and how it is generated?

It is quite certain that every one of us has heard about CO at least once in relation to some news event or other. Carbon monoxide is infamous as a killer gas, often sadly underestimated. So, let’s look at how it forms and investigate the most dangerous sources in everyday life.

What is carbon monoxide?

We can start from the beginning by answering the question: what is carbon monoxide? This gas, also known as carbon oxide, is the product of a reaction of combustion with a lack of air and consists in one oxygen and one carbon atom (CO).

Carbon monoxide is a particularly insidious poisonous gas given that it is odourless, tasteless, colourless and non-irritating which, without adequate ventilation, can quickly reach high concentrations. These characteristics mean that it can be inhaled without noticing, until becoming lethal.

How is carbon monoxide formed?

It is thus very important to understand how CO is formed. Monoxide develops when, in the presence of a combustion of organic material (coal, oil, wood, and so on), the oxygen present in the air is not sufficient to convert all carbon into carbon dioxide (CO2). Some outdoor examples are forest and bush fires or volcanic activity.

What produces carbon monoxide indoors?

Just how does CO come about indoors? It is precisely inside our dwellings that this gas exposes us to the greatest risks to health. Under normal conditions in the home, levels are between 1.5 and 4.5 mg/m3 but in the presence of combustion processes and inadequate ventilation, concentrations can reach up to 60 mg/m3.

So, what are the most dangerous sources in the home? The causes behind carbon monoxide formation in the home can be quite varied but are most often related to misinformation, carelessness or units not installed to standard.

Some examples are tobacco smoke, malfunction of gas boilers or water heaters, obstructions in flues and chimneys that prevent the proper evacuation of smoke from fireplaces or from wood or gas stoves. Other sources may be the indoor use of devices designed for outdoor use, such as camping cookers.

Importantly, CO is not present in the methane gas that normally powers kitchens cooktops. In the case of a leak without any combustion from the stove, we are thus dealing with a methane (and not carbon monoxide) leak.

How to defend yourself

Precisely because of the sneaky nature of carbon monoxide, it is necessary to adopt take action to prevent any issues, such as by carrying out regular maintenance of the thermal system and leaving the vents free to ensure adequate ventilation of the premises.

Such prevention standards should never be neglected, whilst an additional layer of protection can be added, consisting in the installation of a gas detector that can alert us of the possible presence of CO.