Automobiles and Carbon Monoxide — The Basics
Gas-powered automobile engines can produce high concentration of carbon monoxide (CO) quickly, overcoming exposed individuals before they realize they are at risk.
To put this in perspective, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) notes that CO concentrations reach the Immediately Dangerous to Life and Health (IDLH) concentration of 1,200 parts per million (ppm) in only 7 minutes when a small 5 horsepower gasoline engine is run in a 10,000 cubic foot room.
Persons affected by CO display a lack of reasoning caused by reduced oxygen to the brain that can impair function and make them less likely to discern the danger in the environment.
The Causes of Carbon Monoxide Exposure from Automobiles
While many risks of carbon monoxide (CO) exposure stem from mechanical issues, there are a series of best practices regarding limiting CO exposure that should be considered when operating a motor vehicle.
In general, you should avoid:
- Operating a vehicle with a defective exhaust system.
- Operating a vehicle with a defective emission system or poorly tuned engine.
- Driving a vehicle with the trunk lid or rear tailgate open.
- Driving a vehicle with holes in the car body.
- Warming up a vehicle in a garage, even with the outside garage door open.
- Operating vehicles in a garage, carwash, or any enclosed building.
Risks Specific to Defective Exhaust Systems
Even a properly tuned gasoline engine will produce more than 30,000 parts per million (ppm) of carbon monoxide in the exhaust stream before the catalytic converter. Engines that are poorly maintained or defective can result in exhaust leaks.
- An exhaust leak can allow escape of carbon monoxide before it is converted to non-toxic CO2 in the catalytic converter.
- The carbon monoxide leaking from the exhaust system can enter the vehicle through holes in the body or open windows or doors.
NOTE: The catalytic converter is ineffective when there is insufficient oxygen in the area, which can occur in closed spaces like garages. Therefore, it is dangerous to leave your car running in a garage, even if the garage is open.
If you are experiencing issues with carbon monoxide stemming from an automobile, you should immediately call a mechanic or service technician. If you suspect an issue, have your car towed to the service garage to avoid exposure.
Your service technician can inspect your vehicle to diagnose and correct any problems due to faulty parts, improper maintenance, or other issues.
To learn more about the effects of CO poisoning, please review Understanding the Effects of Carbon Monoxide.