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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. However, if appliances are not working properly or are used incorrectly, dangerous levels of CO can result. 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.
CO poisons primarily by tightly binding to hemoglobin in the blood (forming carboxyhemoglobin), replacing oxygen and reducing the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood. CO may also poison by binding to tissues and cells of the human body and interfering with their normal function. Recognizing early warning signs of CO poisoning is sometimes difficult because early symptoms of CO exposure (headaches, dizziness, and nausea) are nonspecific and may be mistaken for symptoms of other illnesses such as colds, flu, or food poisoning. Confusion and weakness can inhibit a person's ability to escape the hazardous environment.
Play it safe...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. 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.
- DO be prepared to answer the following questions for the doctor:
- Do your symptoms occur only in the house?
- Do they disappear 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 they working properly?
- DO have your fuel-burning appliances inspected by a trained professional at the beginning of every heating season. Make certain that the flues and chimneys are connected, in good condition and not blocked.
- DO read and follow all of the instructions that accompany any fuel-burning device. If you cannot avoid using an unvented gas or kerosene space heater, carefully follow the instructions 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.
- DON'T idle the car in a 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 a 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.
- DON'T ignore symptoms, particularly if more than one person is feeling them. You could lose consciousness and die if you do nothing.
Carbon Monoxide Detectors are widely available in stores and you may want to consider buying one as a back-up ~BUT NOT AS A REPLACEMENT~ for proper use and maintenance of your fuel-burning appliances. 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. Some CO detectors have been laboratory-tested, and their performance varied. Some performed well, others failed to alarm even at very high CO levels, and still others alarmed even at very low levels that don't pose any immediate health risk. And unlike a smoke detector, where you can easily confirm the cause of the alarm, CO is invisible and odorless, so it's harder to tell if an alarm is false or a real emergency.
First, don't let buying a CO detector lull you into a false sense of security. Preventing CO from becoming a problem in your home is better than relying on an alarm. Follow the checklist of DOs and DON'Ts.
Second, if you shop for a CO detector, do some research on features and don't select solely on the basis of cost. Non-governmental organizations such as Consumers Union (publisher of Consumer Reports), the American Gas Association, and Underwriters Laboratories (UL) can help you make an informed decision. Look for UL certification on any detector you purchase.
Contact THE SRMT Environment Division for more information.