Carbon monoxide, a killer explained

Thomas Hemscheidt
Thomas Hemscheidt
Dr. Ron Kuroda
Dr. Ron Kuroda

By Brooks Baehr - bio | email

The Honolulu Medical Examiner reported Wednesday that three of the five men killed in a fire and fireworks explosion at a Waikele storage facility Friday had inhaled carbon monoxide before they died. Autopsies on the other two men had not been completed.

Neil Sprankle, a 24 year old from Mililani, and Justin Kelii, 29 from Kaneohe, died from asphyxiation due to carbon monoxide inhalation. Kevin Freeman, 24 from Aiea, died of thermal burns and carbon monoxide inhalation.

Carbon monoxide is produced by combustion. Fires that burn with sufficient oxygen produce relatively low levels of carbon monoxide, but when a fire is deprived of oxygen it produces more carbon monoxide.

"Carbon monoxide is the product of incomplete combustion. So if you have any combustible material, it will turn eventually to carbon dioxide (CO2) with the help of oxygen," explained Thomas Hemscheidt, chairman of the Chemistry Department at the University of Hawaii. "If you have limiting amount of oxygen the combustion is incomplete and you only get one oxygen bonded to each carbon instead of two carbon bonded to each oxygen. So if you get carbon dioxide (CO2) that's complete combustion. Carbon monoxide (CO) is incomplete combustion. Happens most of the time when the supply of air is limited," Hemscheidt said.

While Hemscheidt has never seen the storage bunker where the men were killed and is not involved in the investigation, he told Hawaii News Now carbon monoxide could easily accumulate in a bunker with poor air flow.

"If something burns in there and it burns with limiting oxygen, it may well be generating a higher fraction of carbon monoxide as part of the combustion process in comparison to when it is burning out in the open. And so that may have led to the increased level of carbon monoxide in the air inside the cave," he said.

Dr. Ron Kuroda, emergency physician at Queen's Medical Center, explained how inhaling carbon monoxide can lead to death.

"Carbon monoxide is a gas that if you inhale it, it doesn't have any smell. It doesn't have any color. But just like oxygen it also binds to our red blood cells, and it actually binds to our red blood cells stronger than oxygen does, so it displaces it. It doesn't let red blood cells get the oxygen to the places of the body where it needs to be like the brain and the heart and the body kind of suffocates that way," Kuroda said.

Kuroda said if the concentration of carbon monoxide if high, death can be quick.

"A small amount might make you dizzy. It'll make you nauseous. But large amounts, like you are trapped in a house fire or something like that, it can be fatal. You can go unconscious in a few minutes," he added.

The Centers for Disease Control reports as many as 500 people in the United States are killed by carbon monoxide poisoning in the United States every year.

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