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Preventing Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

March 1, 2011

By WeatherBug Meteorologist, John Bateman

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A stealthy killer, carbon monoxide poisoning can be blamed for hundreds of fatalities in U.S. homes each year. What`s even more tragic is these deaths could be easily prevented by just a few simple steps.

Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless and tasteless gas that can be produced by many common household appliances. When inhaled, it is extremely toxic to humans and pets because it enters the bloodstream and prevents the delivery of oxygen to the body.

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a potential threat from any appliance that uses gas, oil, kerosene, charcoal or wood. When these fuels combust in a setting with an insufficient oxygen supply, such as an enclosed room, they produce carbon monoxide instead of the relatively harmless carbon dioxide. One of the biggest threats comes from the gas appliances used to heat your home, food and water. It`s estimated that the carbon monoxide produced from home heating equipment alone is responsible for nearly half of the annual fatalities. Other potential sources of CO are gas-powered lawn equipment, gas or charcoal grills, and automobiles.

Though carbon monoxide gas in the home is impossible for anyone to detect, there are physical signs of CO poisoning. Those include headaches, dizziness, confusion, nausea, and fatigue. Higher exposure can lead to hallucinations, seizures, cardiac arrhythmia and even death. Unfortunately since some of these can also be symptoms of the flu or other illnesses, many people may not suspect carbon monoxide until it`s too late. If you think these symptoms are caused by carbon monoxide, the EPA recommends you get fresh air immediately. Open your doors and windows, turn off any combustion appliances if possible, and go outside. Then get to an emergency room quickly and tell them you think you may have CO poisoning. If you do, a blood test can be done to confirm it.

Preventing carbon dioxide poisoning is fairly simple. Here are the biggest keys:

  • First and foremost, have your oil and gas furnaces, wood stoves, fireplaces, or space heaters inspected annually by a trained professional. Make sure the flues are connected and not blocked. If you have a fireplace, make sure the chimney is clean, in good condition, and not obstructed in any way.

  • Make sure any fuel-burning appliances vent their fumes outside when applicable, and never sleep in a closed room with a gas or kerosene space heater.
  • Never use gas or charcoal grills indoors.
  • Don`t idle your car in the garage. Carbon monoxide can quickly build up in the small space and overcome you. If it`s an attached garage, make sure the door to the house is firmly closed anytime you start your car.
  • Lastly, get battery-operated carbon monoxide detectors and install one on every floor of your home. Carbon monoxide detectors are able to detect traces of CO before they become deadly. They are readily available in most retail stores, especially hardware and home improvement stores. One thing to note though - CO detectors are not foolproof. There have been reported instances when they gave false alarms or didn`t sound any alarm when carbon monoxide levels were high.
  • Fortunately, keeping your family safe from carbon monoxide can be easily achieved by both the maintenance and careful use of fuel-burning appliances. Remember: Prevention is the key.

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    Story image: A graphical representation of a carbon monoxide molecule. The larger black sphere is oxygen, the red smaller one is carbon. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

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