The 1 Big Difference Between Carbon Monoxide And Carbon Dioxide

Heating, Indoor Air Quality, Safety

You might have last heard about carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide in your school days, but the truth is, you live and move with these gasses every day of your life before then and up until now.

So what is the big difference between carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide? And most importantly, how do they individually impact our daily lives and home comfort. We also of course want to know how we can minimize their negative effects on our health and safety.

DP difference between carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide

The Difference Between Carbon Monoxide and Carbon Dioxide that Matters the Most 

We don’t need to be scientists to be familiar with carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide gasses. But we should at least know basic things about them to protect our family’s health from their harmful effects.

The biggest difference between CO and CO2 is that carbon monoxide (CO) is much more detrimental to health and deadlier if inhaled than carbon dioxide (CO2). You will feel the damaging effects of carbon monoxide such as headaches, vomiting, dizziness, and chest pain at 100 ppm (parts per million). And a person can die with minimal exposure to carbon monoxide of 800 ppm within a few minutes to a few hours depending on their health and age. 

CO is not typically found in nature but is the result of incomplete combustion. Poorly operating or Improperly ventilated oil and gas-powered furnaces, space heaters, ovens, portable generators, and fireplaces are the most common sources of carbon monoxide poisoning at home.

On the other hand, carbon dioxide is a natural byproduct of respiration where humans and animals inhale oxygen and breathe out CO2. It is also released when dead plants and animals decompose, during fermentation, and other chemical reactions. You can also experience negative effects from carbon dioxide exposure if you have been exposed to high concentrations of CO2 in an enclosed space. 

Carbon dioxide poisoning is possible but is rare. Only if you have been exposed to 40,000 ppm of CO2 can it be considered life-threatening.

Now that we have an overview of the difference between these two gasses and realized their significant impacts on our home life, we definitely want to know a little more about them.

What are the similarities between these two like-sounding gasses? What is the difference between carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide in terms of how they are made? What are the differences between carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide when it comes to their health and safety hazards? How do you protect your family from poisoning because of these two gasses?

Take a deep breath and let’s dive into the answers.

What is Carbon Monoxide?

Carbon monoxide is a chemical compound of one carbon atom and one atom of oxygen. This is why it is best known for its chemical formula CO. It does not have any color, smell, or taste so it is virtually untraceable unless with a carbon monoxide detector.

Carbon monoxide is not naturally produced in nature by humans, animals, or plant life. So how did this dangerous gas come about?

Carbon monoxide is entirely artificial in the sense that it is the result of man-made activities, whether on purpose or by accident. 

When a man-made machine or device goes through the process of burning but there is not enough oxygen available to add to the carbon, it undergoes what is called, “incomplete combustion”. The resulting gas from burning fossil fuels such as oil, gas, and coal is extremely toxic carbon monoxide.

However, in a controlled and proper setting, carbon monoxide has industrial uses such as the production of aldehydes such as methanol, a prime ingredient for making car parts, construction materials, paints, and plastics. Carbon monoxide is also important in the fabrication of nickel and iron.

What is Carbon Dioxide?

Although seemingly similar by name, carbon dioxide is an entirely different gas from carbon monoxide, both in chemical formation, its origins, and its uses. 

You might have guessed from its chemical formula CO2 that it is a bond of one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms. Like CO, carbon dioxide is also tasteless, odorless, and colorless.

But unlike carbon monoxide which is artificial, carbon dioxide is naturally found and produced by nature. 

When humans and animals take in oxygen, they exhale carbon dioxide in return. Plants consume carbon dioxide as part of their food production process (photosynthesis) and release oxygen. This oxygen-carbon dioxide cycle is essential for the continued survival of all living creatures on earth. 

Carbon dioxide is also produced when plants and animals die and decay. It is also a byproduct of fermentation or the metabolic processes of bacteria or yeasts involved in the production of alcoholic beverages. 

Meanwhile, humans through their industrial means can manufacture carbon dioxide. Factories that create hydrogen and ammonia through artificial ways can also create CO2 in their plantations. For good reasons since carbon dioxide is used in a variety of day-to-day items such as soft drinks or carbonated beverages, dry ice, refrigerant, and fire extinguishers.

Dangers of Carbon Monoxide and Carbon Dioxide

While both carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide are industrially vital to modern living, they are also both potentially harmful to our health and can even be fatal if not monitored.

Upon inhaling a dangerous amount of carbon monoxide, it will replace the oxygen in your bloodstream and your red blood cells. This will result in severe tissue and organ damage, which if not remedied quickly can lead to critical carbon monoxide poisoning, brain damage, and even fatality.

The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are dizziness, fatigue, headache,  nausea, vomiting, difficulty in breathing, blurred vision, confusion, and loss of consciousness.

Meanwhile, carbon dioxide at very high concentrations in an airtight space can lead to asphyxiation or unconsciousness due to a lack of necessary oxygen. Carbon dioxide poisoning can manifest in dizziness, heightened breathing and heart rate, and irregular heartbeat. Direct skin contact with solidified CO2 or dry ice can also cause burns. 

What’s Worse: Carbon Monoxide or Carbon Dioxide?

Hands down, the more dangerous gas between carbon monoxide (CO) and carbon dioxide (CO2) is carbon monoxide. In fact, CO is considered one of the most toxic gases ever discovered on earth.

Consider this comparison: The beginning stages of carbon dioxide poisoning start at an exposure of 10,000 parts per million (ppm) where the person in an enclosed room or vehicle will begin to feel drowsy. At 30,000 ppm, head pains and dizziness can mildly be felt. And only at 40,000 ppm can the carbon dioxide levels be considered to be hazardous.

However, mild carbon monoxide poisoning can begin at an exposure of merely 100 ppm! After headaches, non-stop vomiting, and dizziness, at 200 to 400 ppm a person suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning can lose consciousness and can even die in a matter of hours. And for some, at 800 ppm and above, carbon monoxide can kill anyone within minutes.

Another significant difference is that carbon dioxide is non-flammable and has no explosive properties. But carbon monoxide is flammable in exceedingly high concentrations.

Prevent Carbon Monoxide Poisoning in Your Home

What can you do to protect yourself from the threatening effects of carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide? Here are some practical things you can do:

  1. Install quality carbon monoxide detectors. Low level monitors are best.
  2. Make sure your CO alarms have full batteries and are in good working condition year-round. 
  3. Have your gas and oil-powered appliances such as furnaces and other heating systems, stoves, ovens, and water heaters regularly checked and serviced by a certified professional.
  4. Limit the use of generators, pressure washer, charcoal grills, lanterns, and camping stoves outdoors. Never use them in basements or garages.

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