Carbon monoxide poisoning in racing car drivers

J E Holley, J W Butler, J M Mahoney
Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness 1999, 39 (1): 20-3

BACKGROUND: To determine if carbon monoxide (CO) exposure during competition racing is significant enough to cause post-racing symptoms among professional racing drivers.

METHODS: Closed vehicle professional racing drivers were questioned after competition regarding symptoms consistent with heat exposure, dehydration, and carbon monoxide poisoning. All drivers, regardless of symptoms, underwent expired CO monitoring using a breath analyzer both before and after competition events. CO measurements were performed prior to any post-race interviews. Driver smoking history, laps at low speed (under caution), cockpit fire or damage to the exhaust system were also noted. An association between driver symptoms, track and vehicle condition, and increases in expired CO levels during racing was sought.

RESULTS: Twenty-eight drivers completed the study. Each driver was tested both before and after each competition event, and some drivers were tested at different tracks. All of the tested drivers experienced an increase in carboxyhemoglobin concentrations during the competition event. Drivers who smoked had higher baseline levels than non-smokers, but were no more likely to have symptoms. The driver with the highest post-race CO level was exposed to a fire which completely destroyed the vehicle, but he complained of no symptoms after the race. Most drivers complained of post-race symptoms or appeared symptomatic, but no correlation could be shown between post-race CO levels and symptoms.

CONCLUSIONS: There is a mild increase in driver CO levels during professional road racing competition, however, no correlation with CO level and driver symptomatology can be demonstrated. Carbon monoxide does not appear to be a significant cause of post-race driver symptoms such as fatigue, nausea, headache, and weakness.

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