Prevent carbon monoxide poisoning

January 06, 2012|Lynn Little

You can't see or smell carbon monoxide, but at high levels it can kill a person in minutes. Carbon monoxide (CO) is the most common cause of poisoning death in the United States, often caused by fuel burning appliances that are not functioning properly.  

Approximately 500 deaths and 15,000 visits to the emergency room occur annually due to unintentional CO poisoning. Adults aged 65 and older are especially vulnerable to unintentional CO poisoning because of their high frequency of pre-existing medical conditions.  

Prevention is the key to avoiding carbon monoxide poisoning. Have your fuel-burning appliances, including gas and oil furnaces, gas water heaters, gas ranges and ovens, gas dryers, gas or kerosene space heaters, fireplaces and wood stoves, inspected by a trained professional at the beginning of every heating season.  

Choose appliances that vent their fumes to the outside whenever possible, have them properly installed and maintain them according to manufacturers' instructions.

If you cannot avoid using an unvented gas or kerosene space heater, carefully follow the cautions that come with the device. Use the proper fuel and keep doors to the rest of the house open. Crack a window to ensure enough air for ventilation and proper fuel-burning.

  •  Don't idle the car in the garage, even if the garage door to the outside is open.  Fumes can build up very quickly in the garage and living area of your home.
  •  Don't use a gas oven to heat your home, even for a short time.
  •  Don't ever use a charcoal grill indoors, even in the fireplace.
  •  Don't sleep in any room with an unvented gas or kerosene space heater.
  •  Don't use any gasoline-powered engines (mowers, weed trimmers, snow blowers, chain saws, small engines or generators) in enclosed spaces. Never use portable generators on balconies or near doors, vents or windows. Never use portable generators near where you and your family sleep.
Know the symptoms for CO poisoning. Symptoms for exposure to low concentrations of CO include mild headache and breathlessness when doing moderate exercise. Continued or acute exposure can lead to flu-like symptoms including severe headaches, dizziness, tiredness, nausea, confusion, irritability and impaired judgment, memory and coordination. Don't ignore symptoms, particularly if more than one person is feeling them. You could lose consciousness and die if you do nothing.  

If you experience symptoms you think could be from CO poisoning get fresh air immediately. Open doors and windows, turn off stoves, ovens, heaters and similar appliances and leave the house. Call the poison center immediately at 800-222-1222. The poison experts will let you know if you need to seek further medical attention.  

Half of all unintentional CO poisoning deaths could be prevented with the use of CO alarms. Unfortunately less than one third of American homes have them installed. Install a CO alarm on every floor of your home and within hearing range of each sleeping area. Carefully follow manufacturers' instructions for their placement, use and maintenance. Unlike smoke alarms, CO alarms may expire after several years.  

Lynn Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with University of Maryland Extension in Washington County.

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