This past week our friends and colleagues at East Coast universities have been slogging through wave after wave of wet snow. Professor Deborah Blum, our resident prize-winning science journalist and popular author, had an interesting take on the situation a few days ago over at her blog Speakeasy Science, inspired by her latest book, The Poisoner’s Handbook:
We live everyday in a colorless, odorless, easily ignorable swirl of carbon monoxide. Produced through the incomplete combustion of carbon-loaded fossil fuels, it wraps around us, drifting from the exhaust pipes of motor vehicles, from coal-fired plants, from wood fires, from our backyard grills packed with charcoal briquettes. Fortunately for us, the gas is absorbed and diluted by the oxygen-packed atmosphere.
But there’s too much about a big snow storm that can concentrate the gas. People, desperate for heat, put their backyard grills into their homes. Others fire up their rarely used gas generators or heaters. In homes, rooftop snow blocks flues and vents, sealing the lethal gas inside. And there’s more. Snow clogs the exhaust pipes of vehicles, causing carbon monoxide to back up into the passenger area of the car. The National Weather Service warns, in fact, that if you are in a car that gets stuck in a snowback, you should run the engine for heat at intervals of ten minutes or less. Some experts argue that you shouldn’t the engine at all – better to be cold than inhaling a very risky gas.
What makes carbon monoxide so dangerous? It’s strongly attracted to proteins in our blood that normally carry oxygen. As a result, carbon monoxide pushes oxygen molecules out of the way as it muscles into the blood stream. The result is a chemical suffocation, marked by dizziness and confusion, in worse cases ending in coma or death.
Check out the full post for more.