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A coal miner's silent killer: Carbon monoxide

Miners refer to carbon monoxide as the silent killer because it is odorless, colorless and tasteless. CO is often found in surface and underground mines that are poorly ventilated or in confined spaces. It poses a serious health hazard, even leading to death if someone is exposed to it long enough or at high enough levels.

Carbon monoxide is hazardous because it attaches to the part of the blood that carries oxygen called hemoglobin. Once the hemoglobin combines with CO, then oxygen is not carried in the levels the body needs. The result is that the oxygen-deprived tissues begin to die. A miner exposed to CO can begin to suffocate because of chemical asphyxiation.

In mines, the most common ways that CO is produced is from the detonation of explosives and the exhaust of internal combustion exhaust. How high the ambient levels of CO are in mine atmospheres is dependent on the coal's characteristics.

After an underground mining explosion or fire, it is important to give special attention to detecting CO. While these events might be rare, CO can be produced in high volumes. In fact, it is more common for a miner to die because of CO exposure than as a direct result of the explosion or fire.

Because CO doesn't have any warning signs, it is especially dangerous. Miners who have health problems involving their lungs or heart are more susceptible to CO poisoning. In many cases, a miner may not even realize that he or she has been exposed to it. Some of the early symptoms of CO poisoning include:

-- Drowsiness

-- Headache

-- Dizziness

-- Weakness

-- Blurry vision

-- Confusion

Early symptoms may also include pale skin, but as the level of CO builds up in the body, the mucous membranes and the skin turn bright, cherry red. If the body continues to be exposed to CO, more symptoms might include:

-- Breathing difficulty

-- Nausea

-- Vomiting

-- Ringing in the ears.

Advanced exposure to CO can lead to brain damage, coma and death. Death can occur quickly in areas where there is an extremely high concentration of CO.

Knowing the symptoms of CO exposure can help save lives, especially in such a dangerous occupations as coal mining. Those who suffer injury due to CO exposure may have a claim for workers' compensation.

Source: U.S. Department of Labor, Mine Safety and Health Administration, "Carbon Monoxide," accessed April. 17, 2015

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