We often hear and read new articles about carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning and related deaths. Last month, ten people were taken to hospitals after carbon monoxide leaks in two homes in Baltimore. According to a county fire spokesman, both incidents were believed to be caused by malfunctioning furnaces, and neither home had carbon monoxide detectors. Carbon monoxide was measured in one house at 600 parts per million (ppm) and safe levels are considered to be under 30 ppm.
Recently, when working in the ER, I saw a family of four adults and five kids come in with symptoms of headache and nausea. After getting some more information and doing some additional tests, I confirmed they had CO poisoning. You can’t see or smell carbon monoxide, but at high levels it can kill a person in minutes.
Carbon monoxide (CO) is produced whenever any fuel such as gas, oil, kerosene, wood, or charcoal is burned .If appliances that burn fuel are maintained and used properly, the amount of CO produced is usually not hazardous but it can build up to dangerous concentrations indoors when not properly vented, operated, or maintained.
It is estimated that unintentional CO exposure causes an estimated 500 deaths in the United States each year, and contributes to more than two thousand. In addition, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that 8,000 to 15,000 people each year are examined or treated in hospitals for non-fire related CO poisoning.
Especially in the winter months, when heaters/ furnaces and fireplaces are being used in closed rooms without adequate ventilation, it’s easy for CO to build up to high levels unnoticed. The symptoms at moderate levels of carbon monoxide poisoning include headache, dizziness, confusion, weakness, nausea, vomiting, and confusion, and high levels can cause unconsciousness and death. Low levels can cause shortness of breath, mild nausea, and mild headaches, and may have longer-term effects on your health. Breathed over long periods of time, low concentrations of CO may also contribute to other illness. Since many of these symptoms are similar to those of the flu, food poisoning, or other illnesses, it’s often easy to overlook CO as the cause of these symptoms.
Fortunately, simple measures can be taken to prevent CO poisoning. One such action is the installation of a CO alarm to detect this potentially deadly gas. Do not consider CO alarms as a replacement for properly working appliances. Also, do not select your CO detectors solely on the basis of costs. Look for Underwriters Laboratories (UL) certification on any detector you purchase.
A few tips to prevent CO poisoning are:
- Have all fuel-burning appliances (furnaces, stoves, space heaters, dryers, and water heaters) professionally installed and maintained.
- Never use a portable generator indoors, including in your home, garage, basement, crawlspace, shed or partially-enclosed area – even with ventilation. Opening doors and windows or using fans will not prevent CO buildup in the home.
- Never bring a charcoal grill in an enclosed area- even with ventilation or even in a fire place.
- Never leave a car running in an attached garage, even with the garage door open.
- Do not use a gas oven to heat your home, even for a short time.
- Do not sleep in any room with an unvented gas or kerosene space heater.
- Install CO alarms near sleeping areas. Alarms can be battery operated, plug-in with battery backup or hardwired with battery backup.
Think about these questions to determine the possibilityof CO poisoning in your house –
- Do your symptoms occur only in the house?
- Do they disappear or decrease when you leave home and reappear when you return?
- Is anyone else in your household complaining of similar symptoms? Did everyone’s symptoms appear about the same time?
- Are you using any fuel-burning appliances in the home?
- Has anyone inspected your appliances lately? Are you certain they are working properly?
If you experience symptoms that you think could be from CO poisoning: GET FRESH AIR IMMEDIATELY. Open doors and windows turn off combustion appliances and leave the house. Go to the nearest emergency room and tell the physician you suspect CO poisoning. If CO poisoning has occurred, it can often be diagnosed by a blood test done soon after exposure. Have a qualified technician inspect your fuel-burning appliances and chimneys and make sure they are operating correctly and that there is nothing blocking the fumes from being vented out of the house.