Carbon Monoxide poisoning from smoke?
February 20, 2010 5:07 PM   Subscribe

Can I get carbon monoxide poisoning from burned food? Today, I made oatmeal on an electric stove ... only, I totally forgot about it. When I finally realized, the whole room (very small one-bedroom flat) was filled with smoke, and the oatmeal was thoroughly burned. Everything else is fine, but right now, I'm just worried that I might get carbon monoxide poisoning. Should I rush over to the emergency room right now, or can I wait till Monday to see a doctor?

It has been about 12 hours since, and I tried to air the place the best I could -- left the windows open for two hours, turned on the ventilators. However, the whole place still smells of smoke.
Yes, I do have a CO detector, but I am not sure as to its effectiveness.
I have a slight headache, but that could be attributed to many things.
posted by moiraine to Health & Fitness (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
No, you don't have carbon monoxide poisoning from burned oatmeal.
posted by kimdog at 5:08 PM on February 20, 2010 [6 favorites]

I concur. I have burned many, many foodstuffs in many, many small apartments, have suffered no adverse effects.
posted by halcyon_daze at 5:11 PM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

IANAD, but I think it's pretty unlikely. And anyway, the main treatment for CO poisoning (according to Wikipedia) is just removing people from the area that has CO. After that, they might get oxygen if they're unconscious. But by the time you go to a doctor on Monday the effect would be gone on it's own anyway (the half life in your body is 320 minutes while breathing normal air)

Once the CO in your body returns to normal levels you would be fine.

I think it's very unlikely that much CO would be released by burning oatmeal. Again looking at wikipedia you need about 100 ppm to cause a slight headache, 1,600 ppm to cause death in two hours. But if the CO levels were high enough to cause death, I think you would notice how sick you were before hand.
posted by delmoi at 5:20 PM on February 20, 2010

Well, it isn't the burnt oatmeal per se that worries me, it's that a substance was burned until it was literally, black carbon and in an environment with limited air circulation (and hence limited oxygen). Doesn't this produce carbon monoxide?

Answers with some knowledge of science would be much more helpful.
posted by moiraine at 5:20 PM on February 20, 2010

Please don't worry. The effects of carbon monoxide, while scary, generally appear within 30 minutes (relatively high concentration) to 2 hours (relatively low concentration). (The lowest concentration detectable by home CO detectors would be likely to cause symptoms within 6-8 hours.) If you have aired out your apartment, and it's been 12 hours, and all you have is a mild headache, you can be very confident that you are just fine. Even though your apartment smells like smoke, that says nothing about carbon monoxide, which is odorless. You're fine!!

I'm not a doctor, but I feel pretty confident about this. Many, many people have burnt many, many things and there has never been a single case of carbon monoxide poisoning due to such a culinary catastrophe. I even Googled it.
posted by Cygnet at 5:22 PM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

moiraine: It would produce some CO but not enough to make you sick. The normal level for CO in homes is 0.5 to 5ppm. Outside is 0.1ppm.
posted by delmoi at 5:23 PM on February 20, 2010

well, the CDC doesn't seem to feel oatmeal is a threat.
posted by radiosilents at 5:24 PM on February 20, 2010

Decreased oxygen in a room doesn't necessarily mean increased carbon monoxide.
I don't know what would replace the O2: could be CO2, could be Nitrogen, could be nasty gray smoke. But if you're alert enough to type the question, you definitely don't have CO poisoning.
posted by SLC Mom at 5:28 PM on February 20, 2010

Here is a page from a Canada-based heating/cooling company that acknowledges that burning food does produce carbon monoxide, but states that it is not a concern.
posted by Cygnet at 5:31 PM on February 20, 2010

Also, this detailed government paper that lists MANY unlikely ways to be exposed to carbon monoxide says absolutely nothing about burned food.
posted by Cygnet at 5:35 PM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Well, it isn't the burnt oatmeal per se that worries me, it's that a substance was burned until it was literally, black carbon and in an environment with limited air circulation (and hence limited oxygen). Doesn't this produce carbon monoxide?

Have you stood next to a bonfire? Have you been in a house with a wood burning fireplace? There is far, far more 'black carbon' looking stuff produced from that in ten minutes than from one pan of burnt oatmeal. People have shared rooms with wood burning fires for thousands of years and not had significant CO issues.

You are very much over-reacting here, and the reason people aren't producing complex scientific answers is that is extremely unlikely that burning a pan of food would produce anything beyond making you cough. Smoke inhalation is bad for you, but it usually needs to be lots of it (like enough that your vision is affected when looking across the room) or when burning something toxic (like rubber, or plastics for example).

Carbon monoxide isn't like a poison as you seem to be imagining it - it's presence doesn't mean instant death or definitely getting sick. It needs to be in sufficiently high proportions to poison you - there's carbon monoxide everywhere, and everything that burns it produces it. It's fairly unusual to get enough concentration to be harmful with half decent ventilation, and even if any carbon monoxide was produced from your pan in any quantity, half an hour with the windows open would most likely have removed it all.
posted by Brockles at 5:51 PM on February 20, 2010 [8 favorites]

If you can type, you're OK... relax, air the place out to get rid of the smell...

or, what everyone else has said...
posted by HuronBob at 6:42 PM on February 20, 2010

IANAD, but not only do you (almost certainly) don't need to go to the doctor urgently, you probably don't need to at all. If your headache continues until Monday, you may want to see a doctor, but it's for other reasons than CO poisoning. People burn things, like REALLY burn the shit out them in their homes, including efficiency apartments, all the time. While it may be the first time you've burned food beyond recognition, your situation is not actually at all unusual.
That said, your house may still smell smoky because the smoke seeped into the fabrics of your furniture, carpet, and even porous woods. Smoky smells can cause headaches, too. It should air out over time, but you could spray something like Febreeze and/or vacuum your cloth furniture and carpets (if you have any) if you wanted to take care of it sooner.
posted by ishotjr at 6:56 PM on February 20, 2010

If the carbon monoxide in your apartment was at a level that would affect you, it'd be affecting you RIGHT NOW, and you wouldn't have been able to type this.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:22 PM on February 20, 2010

it was literally, black carbon and in an environment with limited air circulation

Even with all the doors and windows closed, no home is anywhere close to anything resembling "limited air circulation". There are laws about this, and every home has some circulation. This is measured in ACH (air changes per hour) or in other words, how many times the entire volume of air in the house is replaced in an hour. This site claims a newly built typical house has about 1.75 ACH and older drafty homes have around 2.5 ACH.
posted by Rhomboid at 8:52 PM on February 20, 2010

I think everyone has made it plain that you don't need to worry about CO poisoning, but it might be worthwhile to look in a little more detail.

Well, it isn't the burnt oatmeal per se that worries me, it's that a substance was burned until it was literally, black carbon and in an environment with limited air circulation (and hence limited oxygen). Doesn't this produce carbon monoxide?

The trouble here is that in this context limited air circulation does not at all equal limited oxygen. The small amount of burning that happened in your oatmeal pot did not come anywhere near to depleting the oxygen in the air in your apartment, no matter how small it is. There is a lot of oxygen in your apartment and there is a lot of air being exchanged with the outdoors, while the amount of oxygen consumed by your oatmeal burning is tiny in comparison.

If a small amount of combustion could use up all the oxygen in your apartment, you would die shortly after lighting a candle. It's a question of scale: burning oatmeal or a candle are very, very small and your apartment is (in comparison) very, very large. The amount of oxygen involved in burning your oatmeal is very small compared to the amount of oxygen entering your apartment from the outdoors.
posted by ssg at 10:46 PM on February 20, 2010

Yes, it may be overreacting, hypochondriac by any chance, but there should be a nurseline or poison control number you can call, if still concerned.
posted by hungrysquirrels at 11:54 PM on February 20, 2010

When I was a teenager my mother left the oven on one night. I slept next to the kitchen and woke up in the wee small hours with a shocking headache and a strong smell of smoke. But that was it. That was ~45 years ago. I wouldn't worry.
posted by Logophiliac at 1:06 AM on February 21, 2010

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