Stoves, Tents, and Carbon Monoxide: A Guide
Camping experiences can be wonderful. The thrill of setting off into the unknown with fellow campers armed with only tents for shelter and portable stoves for cooking is truly unparalleled. While the unknown and tents make for a truly surreal combination, the same can’t be said for the combination of tents and portable stoves.
In recent years, a lot of research work has revealed that campers using portable stoves inside closed tents can result in carbon monoxide poisoning, which, if not controlled, can be fatal.
In this guide, we will first take a look at how carbon monoxide affects humans and how stoves produce carbon monoxide. We will also take a look at the different types of symptoms that campers may experience due to carbon monoxide poisoning. In the final section, we will discuss some of the measures that campers can take to keep themselves safe from carbon monoxide poisoning.
How Does Carbon Monoxide Affect Humans?
Carbon monoxide (CO), is a tasteless and smell-less gas that is produced by combustion. Any kind of combustion releases carbon monoxide into the atmosphere and it slowly makes its way into our bloodstream as we breathe it in.
The molecule called hemoglobin, which is present in our red blood cells, is responsible for carrying oxygen to the tissues in our bodies from the lungs. After delivering oxygen, it also collects carbon dioxide (CO2) from the tissues and delivers it back to the lungs, after which we breathe it out.
So how does CO come into the picture? Well, the oxygen that the hemoglobin carries has to first bind to it. However, when there is CO in the environment, it binds to the hemoglobin with much more ease than oxygen does. As CO binds, it congests the hemoglobin, making it extremely difficult for oxygen to bind to it.
Slowly, different parts of our bodies start to feel the effects of oxygen deprivation and each part starts failing, one after the other. Due to the fact that CO has no taste and no smell, people often fail to recognize the source of the symptoms caused by the onset of CO poisoning.
How do Stoves Produce Carbon Monoxide?
CO is one of the by-products of combustion, but how do stoves produce the gas? Well, in simple terms, it happens because the flame does not burn hot enough. As per the theory, a stove flame should only result in water (H2O) and carbon dioxide (CO2) production. However, for CO2 and H2O to be the only by-products, the stove flame should reach around 1,980° C or 3,600° F.
While CO is naturally produced as the flame burns, reaching the aforementioned temperature should burn the gas away as well. However, the flames never reach that temperature, simply because the surface of the pot on the stove is much lower than that of the flame. This results in the flame temperature being stalled at a certain temperature, continuously producing CO.
What are the Symptoms of CO Poisoning?
- Flu-like Symptoms: The onset of CO poisoning typically makes sufferers experience certain flu-like symptoms. Symptoms may include a cough, sore throat, a runny nose and aches in different parts of the body. The telltale sign of the onset is that the flu-like symptoms are not accompanied by high body temperature.
- Balance Loss: If someone is exposed to CO for a few hours, then the individual may have difficulty in keeping steady.
- Problems in Seeing and Remembering: Sight and memory are also affected by continuous exposure to CO. People may experience distorted or blurred vision and they may also suffer from memory loss.
- Fainting: As more and more CO enters the bloodstream, the tissues of the body start to experience severe oxygen deprivation, which would culminate in unconsciousness.
The flu-like symptoms that signal the onset of CO poisoning typically go away after a while if the affected person moves to a place that does not have CO in its environment. However, severe symptoms are much harder to get rid of and may require immediate medical intervention.
The people who are at most risks of being affected by CO poisoning are the ones who have existing respiratory disorders and heart-related issues. CO poisoning also tends to affect pregnant women and children very quickly. Pets are also at risk of feeling the effects of CO poisoning and may fall seriously ill or may even die.
Long-term Complications of CO Poisoning
While mild cases of CO poisoning typically get resolved on their own without significant long-term damage, moderate to severe cases can result in long-term complications.
Moderate or severe exposure to CO may result in a whole host of brain-related issues, with concentration and memory problems being the most common complications. Certain symptoms that signal the onset of Parkinson’s disease such as shaking, stiffness and slow movements may also develop. Long-term exposure can result in coronary heart disease and urinary incontinence, particularly in women.
How to Diagnose CO Poisoning?
CO poisoning can be tricky to diagnose due to CO’s characteristics of being a gas that has absolutely no taste and no smell. However, if you encounter the following signs, particularly while cooking inside a closed tent, then you can be sure that there is CO in your bloodstream.
- Everyone inside the tent developing more or less the same sort of symptoms
- Symptoms slowly improving as people start to leave the tent or open up the tent for better ventilation
Treating CO Poisoning
Mild cases of CO poisoning can be treated without medical intervention. People exposed to CO who believe they are suffering from the effects of the gas should move to another environment quickly and they would feel symptoms improving after some time.
Hospitalization is the best course of action for people experiencing severe symptoms. Medical professionals put a mask on the exposed person’s face and deliver 100 percent oxygen through it. This enables oxyhemoglobin to replace the carboxyhemoglobin quickly.
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) may be needed for people diagnosed with nerve damage from CO poisoning. HBOT involves flooding the bloodstream with oxygen to quickly compensate for the oxygen deprivation, which is one of the results of CO poisoning.
Tips for Campers to Prevent CO Poisoning in Tents
Several campers around the world have paid with their lives for not being aware of the health hazards of CO poisoning. However, as awareness regarding CO poisoning spreads throughout the world, we can expect campers to cook inside their tents more carefully to avoid severe CO poisoning.
If you are a camper, then you should keep the following tips in mind to save not just yourself and your camping partners, but also other camping enthusiasts:
- Ventilation is Essential: No matter what you do inside a closed tent, when it comes to cooking using your stove, always keep the tent open so that there is sufficient ventilation. It would be even better if you can cook outside. While it is difficult, particularly if you are camping in high-altitude mountainous areas due to the extreme cold, it is much better than exposing yourself to the dangers of CO poisoning. Also, take care to completely extinguish the flame before you take the stove back with you inside the tent.
- Use a CO Alarm or Detector: CO alarms and detectors are available for purchase and if you are a frequent camper, then you should buy one as soon as possible. These detectors allow users to monitor the presence of CO in the environment. If they detect CO, they would either give you the information digitally or make a high-pitched sound to alert you.
- Spread the Word about CO Poisoning: Campers who have died or developed long-term health complications due to CO poisoning were simply not aware of how dangerous continuous exposure to CO is. You can play a big part in spreading awareness about CO and how it affects the human body. Talk about CO poisoning with fellow camping enthusiasts when you meet them and also start discussions online.
- Encourage Authorities to Take Steps: Authorities too can play their part in avoiding deaths and mishaps resulting from CO poisoning. Look for popular camping spots and then seek out the people or organizations in charge of maintaining them. Request them to put up prominent signboards that display the dangers of CO poisoning. In this way, even campers who are unaware of CO and its harmful effects can become aware to prevent mishaps.
Research work conducted on exposure to CO has revealed that exposure to 1 – 70 ppm of CO does not generally cause much harm. However, long-term exposure to CO at levels over 70 ppm can trigger symptoms of CO poisoning. Levels of 150 – 200 ppm of CO are considered dangerous and can trigger severe symptoms that typically require emergency medical intervention to prevent death. As CO is a natural by-product of combustion, we cannot eliminate it completely. However, we certainly can take steps to make others aware of how to steer clear from CO poisoning. Camping should be adventurous and thrilling, but never dangerous; remember that on your next camping trip.