Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

You can’t see or smell carbon monoxide (CO), but at high levels it can kill a person in minutes. When power outages occur during emergencies such as hurricanes or winter storms, the use of alternative sources of fuel or electricity for heating, cooling, or cooking can cause CO to build up in a home, garage, or camper and to poison the people and animals inside. CO is found in combustion fumes, such as those produced by small gasoline engines, stoves, generators, lanterns, and gas ranges, or by burning charcoal and wood.

Hundreds of people die accidentally every year from CO poisoning caused by malfunctioning or improperly used fuel-burning appliances. Even more die from CO produced by idling cars. Fetuses, infants, elderly people, and people with anemia or with a history of heart or respiratory disease can be especially susceptible.

How to Recognize CO Poisoning and What to Do

The most common symptoms of for a moderate level of CO poisoning are severe headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, chest pain, confusion and fainting. People who are sleeping or who have been drinking alcohol can die from CO poisoning before ever having symptoms. If CO poisoning is suspected, consult a health care professional right away.

Low levels of CO can cause shortness of breath, mild nausea, and mild headaches, and may have longer term effects on your health. Since many of these symptoms are similar to those of the flu, food poisoning, or other illnesses, you may not think that CO poisoning could be the cause.

If you experience symptoms that you think could be from CO poisoning:

  • DO GET FRESH AIR IMMEDIATELY. Open doors and windows, turn off combustion appliances and leave the house.
  • DO GO TO AN EMERGENCY ROOM and tell the physician you suspect CO poisoning. It can often be diagnosed by a blood test done soon after exposure.

Important CO Poisoning Prevention Tips

  • Never use a gas range or oven to heat a home. If conditions are too hot or too cold, seek shelter with friends or at a community shelter.

  • Never use a charcoal grill, hibachi, lantern, or portable camping stove inside a home, tent, or camper. Never use gasoline, propane, natural gas, or charcoal-burning devices inside a home, basement, garage, or camper - or even outside near an open window.

  • Never run a generator, pressure washer, or any gasoline-powered engine inside a basement, garage, or other enclosed structure, even if the doors or windows are open, unless the equipment is professionally installed and vented. Keep vents and flues free of debris, especially if winds are high. Flying debris can block ventilation lines.

  • Never run a car, generator, pressure washer, or any gasoline-powered engine outside an open window, door, or vent where exhaust can vent into an enclosed area.

  • Never leave the motor running in a vehicle parked in an enclosed or partially enclosed space, such as a garage.

Bottom Line:

  • Every home should have at least one working carbon monoxide detector. The detector’s batteries should be checked twice annually, at the same time smoke detector batteries are checked. However, it is important for you to know that the technology of CO detectors is still developing, that there are several types on the market, and that they are not generally considered to be as reliable as the smoke detectors found in homes today. Choose carefully which CO detector you buy - a little extra money could save your life.

Details taken from the CDC CO Facts and the EPA IAQ web pages.

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