The problem is deadly serious. Literally deadly.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, carbon monoxide is one of the leading causes of accidental poisoning deaths in the United States. Each year, over 400 Americans die from accidental CO poisoning. More than 20,000 are rushed to emergency rooms—where the race is to clear the individual's system of the lethal gas before it can cause brain damage—or worse. Clearly time is of the essence.
The usual treatment is to seat the victim and immediately start him or her breathing 100 percent oxygen to replace the toxic carbon monoxide. That takes time—precious time a CO victim may not have.
But Dr. Gerald Zavorsky, director of the Human Physiology Lab at Marywood University, has been conducting research that could significantly shorten that period.
"I wanted to investigate the question: Can we get rid of carbon monoxide quicker using a bike than the methods used in hospitals, which is sitting on a chair breathing 100 percent oxygen?" Dr. Zavorsky said.
After collecting data between June and August 2011, Dr. Zavorsky found that subjects who exercised on a bike after carbon monoxide exposure significantly reduced the levels of carbon monoxide in their bodies.
"At rest, while sitting in a chair, a person breathing at a normal rate will reduce half of the carbon monoxide in the body in 4.8 hours," Dr. Zavorsky said. "If a person exercises at an easy pace on a bike, we found the process speeds up, reducing half the amount of carbon monoxide in the body in 1.7 hours.
What's more, Dr. Zavorsky discovered that by exercising on a bike at a mild intensity, while breathing 100 percent oxygen , a person can reduce half of the amount of carbon monoxide in his or her body in a mere 23 minutes. "This is the triple therapy effect: exercise, rapid breathing, and 100 percent oxygen."
Most individuals can exercise at this mild exercise intensity (65 W), and with exercise, one's breathing rate and depth is increased. Adding 100 percent oxygen also improves carbon monoxide clearance. Although these findings are preliminary, the Human Physiology Lab Director believes that this outcome can impact carbon monoxide treatment in hospitals, which at present rely on either pressured oxygen chambers (of which there are only a few in the U.S.) or inspiring 100% oxygen while sitting on a chair.
The results of Dr. Zavorsky's study investigating the impact of exercise—bicycling—on improving clearance rates of carbon monoxide in humans in those that have been exposed to it will soon be published nationally. He has authored a paper titled, "Increased Carbon Monoxide Clearance during Exercise in Humans," which will appear in the Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, published by the American College of Sports Medicine.
Looking ahead, Dr. Zavorsky hopes to test his ideas in a clinical setting to find out if his results can be reproduced in a real world situation.
Since causes of carbon monoxide poisoning can range from highly visible disasters such as home or industrial fires, to something as simple as malfunctioning household appliances, exposure to paints and solvents, a poorly ventilated garage, swimming near the stern of a boat with the engine running—and a lot more seemingly innocent activities, Dr. Zavorsky's research could have a huge—and lasting—impact. According to the National Poison Data System, there are currently about 7,500 reported exposures to unintentional, non-fire related carbon monoxide annually in the U.S., and with fire-related exposures, this significantly adds up.
"This is another example of how exercise is such an effective tool towards improved health and well-being," he says.