University of Iowa Health Science Relations and
Eric Greensmith, MD
Associate Professor of Anesthesia
First Published: January 2003
Peer Review Status: Internally Peer Reviewed
Eric Greensmith, MD, knows that fall is a dangerous time of the year in Iowa. Whenever the first hint of winter's chill is in the air, the hazards of
carbon monoxide exposure increase significantly.
Carbon monoxide cases are the most common form of accidental poisoning
in the United States, accounting for approximately 40,000 emergency department
visits and about 800 deaths each year. Carbon monoxide injuries and deaths
occur when levels of the tasteless, odorless and colorless gas build up
in poorly ventilated spaces where a carbon-based fuel is burned.
Greensmith, an associate professor in the University of Iowa Department
of Anesthesia, says carbon monoxide poisoning cases often peak when Iowans
begin to heat their homes.
"Having your furnace checked by a professional is a key step in
preventing carbon monoxide poisoning," Greensmith said. "We
also need to keep educating the public about the safe operation of all
appliances, heaters, fireplaces and internal-combustion engines, which
are all potential sources of carbon monoxide."
The use of carbon monoxide detectors and alarms is also essential in
protecting the public from carbon monoxide poisoning. The devices measure
the level of carbon monoxide in the home or workplace and alert the occupants
if the levels begin to approach harmful levels.
When carbon monoxide poisoning does occur, the symptoms are often vague,
but can include headache, dizziness and confusion. Carbon monoxide binds
to hemoglobin in the blood and interferes with the delivery of oxygen
to the tissues. Specialists have recently begun using a treatment called
hyperbaric-oxygen therapy to treat patients acutely affected by carbon
Greensmith serves as director of Hyperbaric Medicine at UI Hospitals
"Hyperbaric-oxygen therapy is very effective at literally flushing
carbon monoxide from the body," he said. "Not only does the
technique help more patients survive, it also reduces the potential long-term
effects of carbon monoxide poisoning, such as possible loss of intellect
Hyperbaric-oxygen therapy involves placing patients in a special chamber
and having them breathe pure oxygen under high pressure. This procedure
helps force the oxygen into the tissues of the body. The technique is
also used to promote wound healing and to treat a condition commonly referred
to as "the bends," which can affect deep-sea divers.