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Carbon Monoxide: The Silent Killer

Be prepared. The life you save may be your own.

Those lazy days of summer are sadly behind us.

As we move into fall and more of our activities are indoors you may have a hidden danger in your home. It sneaks up on you when you least expect it, silent, invisible and deadly and can kill you without leaving a trace in a matter of minutes.

It’s carbon monoxide, a colorless, odorless and tasteless gas that is a leading cause each year of unintentional death from poison.

Carbon monoxide is produced by combustible fumes that burn gas, petroleum products, wood or other fuels. The danger occurs when too much carbon monoxide accumulates in a space that is poorly ventilated.

If appliances that burn fuel (think gas oven) are not working properly or are used incorrectly, dangerous levels of carbon monoxide can result. Carbon monoxide poisoning is caused by inhaling combustion fumes. Malfunctioning or improperly using fuel burning appliances kill hundreds of people each year and the simple act of idling cars has also been implicated in several accidental deaths.

Fetuses, infants, elderly people and those people with anemia or a history of heart or respiratory disease are especially susceptible.

The mechanism of carbon monoxide poisoning is caused by the red blood cells, which pick up carbon monoxide quicker than they can pick up oxygen. If there is too much carbon monoxide in the air red blood cells will start replacing oxygen with the carbon monoxide. The oxygen that is transported by red blood cells is then prevented from getting into the body causing damage to the surrounding tissues and eventually being starved of oxygen, death.

The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning can sometimes be subtle if they are at low levels. At first you may feel like you are coming down with the flu. You may have a dull headache and then notice it seems to improve when you go outside. Later you can develop weakness, dizziness, nausea, vomiting and chest pain. In later stages you may become confused, irritable, have impaired judgment and eventually loss of consciousness. Each year we hear of families that go to sleep and never wake up because they died of carbon monoxide poisoning.

If you suspect that any of the above symptoms may be carbon monoxide poisoning get to fresh air immediately. Open up the doors and windows, turn off all appliances and leave the house.

Go to an emergency room and let the physician know that you suspect carbon monoxide poisoning, which can be diagnosed by a blood test. The treatment is oxygen and in worse case scenarios a hyperbaric chamber which will deliver high concentrations of oxygen.

Prevention and good common sense are key to avoiding carbon monoxide poisoning. Every year have your fuel burning appliances inspected by a trained professional at the beginning of the heating season. These include oil and gas furnaces, gas water heaters, gas ranges and ovens, gas dryers, fireplaces and wood stoves. It is very important that the flues and chimneys are connected, in good condition and are not blocked.

Never use a gas oven to heat your home, even if it is for a short time. Don’t 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 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.

Get a carbon monoxide detector and place it on every floor of the home. Make sure it is in good working condition and change the batteries twice a year. Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security that now you are safe. If you or other members of your family are experiencing any of the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, get checked out. The life you save may be your own.


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