What You Need to Know About
Carbon Monoxide and Multi-Sensory Sensitivity
Carbon monoxide (CO) is the most common cause of toxic poisonings and deaths
in America, and has been for over a century. CO also may be the most
common cause of MCS, but it causes a very specific type of MCS that we call
Multi-Sensory Sensitivity or MUSES Syndrome. MUSES Syndrome is caused
only by CO poisoning and is characterized not just by hypersensitivity to
chemicals but to all types of sensory stimuli, including light, sound, touch,
hot or cold weather and even (in extreme cases) electromagnetic fields.
People who develop MCS after exposure to other toxins
such as pesticides or mold may also be sensitive to one or two other types
of sensory stimuli such as light and sound but what distinguishes the MUSES
cases caused by CO poisoning is their sensitivity to EVERYTHING. Click
here to read about a typical case of MUSES syndrome published in First For Women magazine.
Fortunately, MUSES syndrome is easily diagnosed; even
years after exposure, it is marked by a deficiency in the body's ability to
absorb oxygen from the blood which is easily tested and can be safely treated
with the standard treatment for CO poisoning, which is supplemental oxygen.
More on treatment below.
How does CO cause multi-sensory sensitivity? The
public (and most doctors) are taught only that CO is an invisible, odorless
and tasteless gas that can kill you in seconds at very high levels of
exposure. But few know that CO at low levels is also vital for human
life. We and all other mammals produce CO constantly in the normal
breakdown of our heme proteins (such as hemoglobin in red blood cells,
myoglobin in muscle, and cytochromes throughout the body) by an enzyme called
heme oxygenase (HO).
This production of CO by HO is increased 10 to 100-fold
in response to stress of any kind, whether physical, chemical, biological,
or mental, which is why HO is known as the Universal Stress Enzyme. CO
also is produced by the breakdown of certain inhaled and ingested chemicals
such as methylene chloride, aka dichloromethane, which is a common solvent
and propellant used in spray cans of all kinds.
After people have been CO poisoned, they may become hypersensitive
thereafter to even very low levels of CO exposure (just as ex-alcoholics and
ex-addicts become hypersensitive to their drug only after they quit). They
actually become so sensitive to CO that they overreact to even the relaitvely
low levels produced by their body in response to stress of any kind.
While some of the CO produced by the body is bound tightly
to hemoglobin, transported to the lungs, and exhaled, most binds to other
proteins and is active in at least 90 pathways, including as a gaseous neurotransmitter
in the regulation of learning, memory, heart rate, respiration and vasodilation.
Of most significance to people with MCS is that CO controls sensory sensitization
and adaptation to odors, lights, sounds and all other types of sensory stimuli.
These effects occur at relatively low levels of CO (under
5 parts per million in non-smokers), so--unless adapted or habituated to much
greater exposures (as smokers are, for example)--most humans are very sensitive
to breathing or producing small amounts of CO. For a more detailed
explanation supported by dozens of medical references, see our background paper on Sources,
Symptoms, Biomarkers and Treatment of Chronic Carbon Monoxide Poisoning.
CO poisoning should be suspected
whenever any of the following "flu-like" symptoms persist or recur regularly
indoors, especially if affecting more than one person (or pet) at a time:
- Fatigue, Weakness
- Muscle Pain, Cramps
- Nausea, Vomiting
- Upset Stomach, Diarrhea
- Confusion, Memory Loss
- Dizziness, Incoordination
- Chest Pain, Rapid Heart
- Difficult or Shallow Breathing
- Changes in Sense of Hearing,
Vision, Smell, Taste and Touch
(from more common multi-sensory sensitivity at one extreme to less common
loss of smell, taste, hearing and/or vision at the other extreme)
standard treatment for CO poisoning is 100% oxygen (humidified)
via a tight fitting non-rebreather mask. Oxygen also can be taken without
humidification if inhaled into the nose via a canulus (without a mask),
which most people with multi-sensory sensitivity tolerate better than a
mask. Symptoms usually improve within weeks of daily oxygen therapy
(2hours per day), although it usually takes 3 to 4 months of daily therapy
until people can stop taking oxygen without their CO symptoms returning.
To see if
you may may benefit from oxygen treatment, we recommend you print out MCS
R&R's 2-page protocol for diagnosis
and treatment of CO poisoning and complete the questionnaire on page 1.
Take this along with page 2 to any local physician you like who is willing
to prescribe the recommended arterial and venous blood gas tests to
determine if you have low oxygen uptake and could benefit from oxygen therapy.
Although some physicians have the equipment needed to test blood gases
in their office, most will need to send you to a hospital blood gas lab.
Unfortunately people with pure
MCS (and no multi-sensory sensitivity) do not usually have a problem with
oxygen uptake and so cannot be cured by oxygen therapy. But supplemental
oxygen may help people with other disorders whose symptoms clearly overlap
with and may be caused by CO poisoning:
Alzheimer's * Asthma *
Attention Deficit Disorder * Autism * Chronic Fatigue Syndrome * Depression
* Dysautonomia * Fibromyalgia * Irritable Bowel Syndrome * Lupus (SLE) *
Migraine * Neurally Mediated Hypotension * Panic Disorder * Parkinson's
* Pre-Menstrual Syndrome * Reactive Airways Dysfunction Syndrome * Reflex
Sympathetic Dystrophy * Stress (since all stressors increase CO production)
Since CO cannot
be smelled, seen, tasted or felt, the only way to detect exposure is with
a CO ALARM (which have digital displays only from 30ppm to 999ppm
and alarms only above 70ppm, as specified by UL) or a low-level CO MONITOR
(which has a digital display below 30ppm, as recommended by UL for pregnant
women, children, the elderly and people with chronic health conditions that
put them at greater risk). Two types of low level CO monitors are
available from www.aeromedix.com, the CO
Experts model for home use and the PocketCO for portable use.
If you have any
of CO sources listed below in your home, you should install a CO alarm
or monitor near the bedrooms since most CO deaths occur at night while
people are sleeping. You also may want to keep a portable CO monitor
in your vehicle since CO levels can build up quickly inside cars and
trucks while driving (and especially idling) in heavy traffic, the most
common outdoor source of CO . The most common indoor sources of CO are
combustion appliances (gas ranges and ovens, gas water heaters, gas space
heaters, gas and oil furnaces, gas and wood fireplaces), vehicles and
small engines started in attached garages (especially in winter, as gas
engines produce more CO when cold), and smoke from tobacco products (cigarettes,
pipes, cigars), candles and incense.
Last Modified: 10/23/06