Colourless, odourless, tasteless: Why carbon monoxide can kill you even before you know what’s happening

The family members of Sharifah Fariesha Syed Fathi, 21, are seen at the Forensic Unit of Hospital Seberang Jaya. Sharifah Fariesha and two others died due to CO poisoning after they fell asleep in a parked car with the engine running. ― Bernama pic
The family members of Sharifah Fariesha Syed Fathi, 21, are seen at the Forensic Unit of Hospital Seberang Jaya. Sharifah Fariesha and two others died due to CO poisoning after they fell asleep in a parked car with the engine running. ― Bernama pic

GEORGE TOWN, Sept 18 — Breathing in large amounts of carbon monoxide (CO) can lead to death even if exposure is only for an hour, a certified chemist, Darfizzi Derawi, reminded the public today.

The chemist from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) said CO is a poisonous gas that is also colourless, odourless and tasteless, and this is what makes it so dangerous, because a person won’t necessarily be aware of it even if it were present in large amounts in the atmosphere.

He said when a person breathes in CO, it displaces oxygen in the blood and deprives the heart, brain and vital organs of this essential gas.

“This is why if someone were to fall asleep and inhale this gas in large amounts in a car, it could prove fatal,” he said in an interview with Malay Mail.

However, Darfizzi said there were warning signs of CO poisoning that a conscious person can look out for such as a headache, fatigue, dizziness, drowsiness and nausea.

“If the exposure is prolonged, this could lead to vomiting or a loss of consciousness,” he said.

He said in the case of the three people who died yesterday due to carbon monoxide poisoning after they fell asleep in a parked vehicle with the engine running, it was possible that the car’s catalytic converter was faulty.

“All cars have a catalytic converter that converts CO to carbon dioxide (CO2). But if the converter is not working properly, this means the car is releasing CO,” he said.

Darfizzi said the risk is low if the car is in motion as the CO being released is dispersed into the environment and not circulated in the cabin.

“It is when the vehicle is not moving that there is a danger as the CO could enter the vehicle,” he said.

He stressed that if the catalytic converter is in a good working condition and there is no leakage in the car exhaust system, there will not be high amounts of CO.

“So, it is not true that if you fall asleep in a car with the engine running that you can get CO poisoning. This only happens if the catalytic converter is faulty or there is a leak in the exhaust,” he said.

Darfizzi said there is only one way to prevent such incidents, and that is car owners must have their vehicles regularly serviced and check that their catalytic converter and exhaust are in good working order.

Yesterday, three college students died due to CO poisoning while another is in critical condition after they fell asleep in a parked car with the engine running.

According to the police, a mechanic confirmed that the car’s exhaust pipe had a leak which could have been the cause of the CO poisoning.

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