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Carbon monoxide poisoning: "One suffocates internally"


Two young men from Langenthal were killed by car exhaust fumes. Answers to the most important questions about carbon monoxide poisoning.

The drama moves Switzerland: Fitim D. * (19) and Volkan H. * (20) from Langenthal BE, apparently with the engine running, sat in a car in the garage on Wednesday evening to warm up - and were killed by the exhaust gases. Hugo Kupferschmidt, Director of Toxinfo Suisse, answers the most important questions about carbon monoxide poisoning.

When do you get carbon monoxide poisoning in the car?

Cars with a catalytic converter hardly emit any more carbon monoxide. However, this is only filtered out when the engine is warm. If the engine of the car parked in the garage in which the two men sat was cold, the engine would have emitted CO, especially in the first few minutes. If the engine was warm and the car had a catalytic converter, they must have been exposed to the exhaust gases for a very long time before they absorbed a lethal dose. A car without a catalytic converter is much faster. This is why suicides with car exhaust fumes used to be common. With the advent of the catalyst, this form of suicide has almost completely disappeared.

Can you poison yourself with carbon monoxide if the windows and doors of the car are closed?

Yes. It is not as fast as running the car engine in a closed room with the doors and windows open. But sooner or later the vapors penetrate the vehicle. This happens right from the start if you leave the car heater on and a ventilation system running.

Do those affected even notice that they are being poisoned?

Carbon monoxide is odorless and the exhaust fumes from today's cars hardly smell any more. The first signs of poisoning are headaches and nausea. Often, however, those affected do not establish a connection between these symptoms and carbon monoxide and therefore do not react.

What does carbon monoxide trigger in the human body?

Carbon monoxide penetrates the red blood cells and prevents the blood from absorbing oxygen. So the oxygen supply to the organs dies. The organs that are affected first are the organs that need the most oxygen: the brain and heart. One can still breathe - but suffocates inside.

How long do you stay conscious?

Depending on how high the concentration of carbon monoxide in the air is, you will pass out more quickly or less quickly. If the concentration is high, this can be the case after a few minutes. In most deaths, the victims were passed out long before death occurred.

Are there many cases of carbon monoxide poisoning in Switzerland?

Toxinfo registered a total of 22 cases in 2014, none of which were fatal. Since not all cases are reported to us, the actual number is higher. There are always deaths in Switzerland.

Wherever can you get carbon monoxide poisoning?

In addition to car exhaust fumes, defective heating systems are a source, but so are gas-powered instantaneous water heaters that provide hot water in a bathroom, for example. Wood pellets also emit CO - not when they are burned, but when they are stored. So if you enter such a camp and are not aware of this danger, you can get poisoned. Poisoning also occurs when gasoline engines, such as generators, are operated in closed rooms without a catalytic converter. Burning charcoal indoors is also life-threatening.

* Names known to the editors.

Forensic medicine confirms carbon monoxide poisoning

The Bern canton police confirmed on Friday that Fitim D. and Volkan H. may have died of carbon monoxide poisoning. This would have shown the examinations of the forensic medicine. It is currently assumed that the two men were in the garage with the car engine running. Because the engine was running, the oxygen ran out and the two men lost consciousness. (sda)

Hugo Kupferschmidt is director of Toxinfo Suisse, the official information point in Switzerland for all questions about poisoning.