Your Car as Silent Killer: Up Close and Personal with the Dangers of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning from a Faulty Car Exhaust

If you believe the only dangers from your car are the obvious ones, think again. Some of the most perilous potential for illness or death from your car can come from substances you cannot see, smell, or taste. For example, emissions that occur as a natural part of your car’s combustible engine can produce deadly side effects in anyone sitting in your car or standing in close proximity when you run your car in a closed garage. Nor do you need weak or already sick to be felled by the problems such lethal gases can bring on.

Once you read my story here, look for other Associated Content articles, penned by myself and other authors, regarding car emissions. Armed with this information, you will hopefully be inspired – if not terrified – into checking your car carefully then repairing and maintaining your car, truck, or SUV in the best ways possible.

My brush with car-related tragedy started out like too many others do. As an impoverished graduate student with little money to spend on car repair or maintenance, I drove around an aged Honda that was in pretty rough shape. When the muffler ripped away after driving into a pothole, a friend helped me wire the muffler and its tailpipe back into place until I could come up with the money to replace it. The repair made the car run more quietly, but it also set up a nasty situation that cost me months of health and not an insubstantial amount of terror.

A few weeks after the makeshift repair of the muffler, I noticed I was getting far more headaches than usual. This I attributed to my frantic work and school schedule and the hours I spent in my car each day making a 120-mile commute. Then the symptoms worsened sharply and suddenly: I would sometimes lose the ability to speak or perform basic motor functions. I often lost my balance and began to suffer from blackouts.

When I went to my doctor, he first diagnosed exhaustion, often a catch-all category whenever someone is overworked. But as the situation grew steadily more grave, he told me he suspected that I had multiple sclerosis, a chronic and debilitating illness of the central nervous system that destroys protective sheaths found on the nerves and leaves people unable to walk, speak, or see properly. A neurologist concurred and I was not only in danger of losing my license to drive, it seemed like my life was about to slip away as well.

Then a smart friend reminded me of the makeshift muffler repair and how many of my physical symptoms fell within the range of behaviors exhibited by those with carbon monoxide poisoning. He recommended I stop by the local airfield and ask a technician there to run a Co test on my car. I hesitated for a few weeks, in part because I ran this idea past my doctor and the neurologist who were dubious that a problematic muffler could cause the extent of the symptoms I now displayed on a daily basis.

You’ve no doubt heard of carbon monoxide or Co. Carbon monoxide is seen whenever you have incomplete combustion of a carbon or a fuel like gasoline. You find it around almost any vehicle, but its level are at their highest with a freshly started or idling car, or one in which the carburetor is in dire need of proper adjustment. Carbon monoxide is the most lethal of all emissions produced by an automobile. Yet this potentially lethal gas can also be found in concentration in homes with a poorly functioning heating system as well, especially where homes are insulated so thoroughly that there are few drafts.

Finally, however, I decided there was nothing to lose by following my friend’s suggestion. I went to the air field and found a worker willing to help for just the cost of a test kit (under $10 then).

The first carbon monoxide test was negative, which left me disappointed. By then, I was hoping the cause was something so simple because it would mean I did not have multiple sclerosis. Yet the airfield technician insisted I repeat the tests under different vehicle operating conditions. Grudgingly, I agreed.

Three more tests finally produced results. Sure enough, whenever I sat idling in heavy traffic, the carbon monoxide levels in my car went off the charts. Although I often kept a side window in the car cracked a bit for fresh air even in the coldest stretches of winter, it was apparently not enough to spare me the most harmful effects of the fumes.

Carbon monoxide was killing me, quite literally. It was wreaking havoc because the odorless gas was affecting my body’s ability to process oxygen and disrupting delicate blood chemistry levels. One expert I spoke with told me he was quite surprised I survived this exposure considering it continued for nearly 10 weeks before a correct diagnosis was rendered. He informed me that permanent damage can occur in a much shorter period of time, sometimes from just a single day’s exposure.

Once I got the car fixed properly, my health slowly returned. My diagnosis of multiple sclerosis was finally reversed, but to this day, I am not completely certain there are not lingering side effects. For example, I seem a bit more prone to illness than I once was, and usually suffer more from neurological symptoms with sicknesses I formerly did not.

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