Carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning causes more than 20,000 emergency room visits and 400 deaths each year in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas, making it difficult to detect and therefore difficult to prove as the culprit in countless CO poisoning cases. Many injuries and deaths can be avoided if proper precautions are taken, such as installing CO detectors and designing products to minimize the risk of CO exposure. Despite CO’s deadly effects, it seems the government has done little to recognize the issue as a serious one,  while the automobile and manufacturing industries have barely acted to fix the problem at all.

Sources and Effects of CO Poisoning

The matter of CO poisoning warrants greater attention and awareness, especially after being responsible for so many deaths, like the deaths of Rodney Eric Todd and his seven children. They were all killed from accidental CO poisoning. The carbon monoxide was leaking from a gas generator inside the house that ran out of fuel but was still turned on. While this sounds like an improbable way for eight people to die, CO is known as the silent killer. Perhaps if there were clearer warnings about the dangers of keeping gas generators inside, Todd’s family would still be alive.

Carbon monoxide is a byproduct of many different products such as fuel-burning cars, household appliances, and business operations making CO poisoning possible from many different sources. The estimated annual societal cost of this poisoning is about 1.3 billion dollars based on the medical expenses and lost wages of those affected. Since the compound is commonplace, greater awareness of its effects would decrease the social burden and inadvertent deaths.

Oftentimes it can be difficult to recognize CO poisoning for its flu-like symptoms. Doctors are susceptible to misdiagnosing and improperly treating patients. Symptoms can include headache, dizziness, chest pain, vomiting, and confusion, and even loss of consciousness. One of the most commonly reported conditions is brain damage, caused by the deprivation of oxygen to the tissue and brain as CO binds to hemoglobin in the blood and spreads through the body. There is no cure for CO-related brain injuries, however there are several ways to treat patients. Treatments include cognitive and vocational rehabilitation and hyperbaric oxygen therapy, which is breathing pure oxygen in a chamber with higher-than-normal air pressure. The latter is typically used for severe cases of CO poisoning; it replaces the CO in your bloodstream faster than simply breathing fresh air. The severity of the symptoms depends on the duration of exposure, level of CO, and height and weight of the individual.

CO Poisoning Cases Are Complicated

CO poisoning

Hyperbaric oxygen chambers like this one are sometimes used to treat victims of severe carbon monoxide poisoning.

The wide range of CO sources and the many variables that can affect CO poisoning provides a challenge to the plaintiffs in these cases because they need to prove the source of the CO, establish the cause of harmful exposure, and demonstrate the medical connection between the exposure and injuries. To gather this evidence, many types of expert analyses may be necessary, such as physicians, engineers, medical experts, and a variety of others. A different set of experts are needed to substantiate the effects CO has on the body, including cardiologists, neurologists, toxicologists, and others. Proving damages from CO poisoning is expensive for plaintiffs and results in some difficult obstacles. Another pitfall of these cases are negligence claims based on failure to install a CO detector alarm in the first place. These alarms are an easy way to prevent injury from CO. Unfortunately, CO alarms are only mandated in private domiciles by twenty-seven states via state statute and only five states require them in school buildings. More state laws requiring installation of CO alarms would help to reduce the number of CO poisoning cases.

The type of defendant also changes the way CO poisoning cases are handled. Defendants can range from property owners to hotels and restaurants to appliance repair providers. In the case of property owners, it is vital that they complete preventative maintenance and inspections to determine possible hazards before they occur. If they do not do this, it can constitute a breach of applicable duty of care. There are also various codes that apply in different situations, such as International Fire Codes, International Building Codes, and International Mechanical Codes, as well as standards such as the American National Standards. All of these codes add different layers to defending CO poisoning cases.

Determining the amount of CO in the air that is permissible can also be a contentious issue that often impedes litigation. Governmental agencies and associations have differing opinions. For example, the Occupational Safety Health Administration sets the exposure limit for the workplace at fifty parts per million as a time-weighted-average over an eight-hour period. The recommended exposure limit from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health is thirty-five parts per million as a time-weighted average over an eight-hour period. In living spaces, the permissible exposure limit is nine parts per million with the desired level to be zero according to the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air Conditioning Engineers. These varying numbers suggests that the amount of CO in the air can vary on a case-by-case basis, although the ideal rate is zero parts per million.

Proliferation of Keyless Ignitions in Automobile Industry Presents New Challenges

There are separate challenges presented by keyless ignition cases, which are an excellent example of the automobile industry’s lack of recognition on the issue of CO poisoning. While push-to-start features and smart keys are a technological advantage, they can lead to cars being unintentionally left on after the driver leaves the vehicle. The longer the car is left on, the more harmful exhaust full of CO is released, which can then travel from the garage into the house and harm unsuspecting families, especially if the car is left on overnight. These cars are designed to start when the key fob is nearby, however the fob can be taken away and the car will remain on. While this is a safety problem, automakers have failed to publicize this problem and will continue to promote these cars because the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is not acting.

All of the above-mentioned complications of CO poisoning result in costly and complex litigation. Each case entails a unique set of requirements and must be approached with individual manner. More accidental deaths will continue to happen, and they will require more persistent advocates to get the attention and care their cases require unless awareness of CO poisoning is more widely spread.