The fall nor’easter that blanketed the northeast with snow also left in its wake a trail of carbon monoxide-related deaths. In Connecticut alone, four such deaths were reported, including a 41-year-old woman who was heating her home with a charcoal grill and a 29-year-old woman who had a generator running in her basement.
Each year in the U.S., carbon monoxide (CO) kills an estimated 500 people and sends more than 20,000 to the hospital. The highest number of CO poisonings occurs during the winter months when weather-related power outages send people looking for alternative ways to cook and/or heat their homes.
Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless and tasteless gas produced by the incomplete burning of such fuels as coal, wood, charcoal, oil, kerosene, propane and natural gas. When CO is inhaled, it enters the bloodstream and combines with oxygen-carrying hemoglobin, decreasing its ability to transport oxygen to the body’s vital organs, including the heart and brain.
Low levels of carbon monoxide can cause mild headaches, shortness of breath and mild nausea. Moderate levels of CO can produce severe headaches, dizziness, nausea, mental confusion and fainting. In residential situations where carbon monoxide builds up slowly, these symptoms are easily confused with those of the flu, food poisoning or neurological disorders and may be ignored until it is too late. When the presence of carbon monoxide climbs to a high level, symptoms become more severe and can include mental confusion, vomiting, loss of muscular coordination, loss of consciousness and ultimately, death. Infants, pregnant women, the elderly and people with a history of cardiac or lung disease are at greatest risk when exposed to CO.
In addition, as reported by carbonmonoxidekills.com, studies have shown that survivors of CO poisoning who suffered brain swelling can experience “delayed neurological problems that involve…cognitive functions, and may cause a Parkinson-like brain syndrome.”
Preventing Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
The US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) advises taking the following steps to protect against carbon monoxide poisoning:
1. Make sure all your appliances are installed and operated according to the manufacturer’s specifications and local building codes. Have your heating system serviced and inspected. Chimneys and flues should also be checked for blockages or corrosion.
2. Never operate a portable generator or any other gasoline-powered tool in or near an enclosed place, including your garage or house. Despite open doors and windows, these spaces can trap CO and allow it to quickly build to lethal levels. Portable generators should be placed outside at least 15 feet from your house.
3. Do not use portable fuel-burning camping equipment in your home, garage, car or tent unless it is specifically designed for indoor use. Never operate unvented fuel-burning appliances in rooms where people are sleeping.
4. Never burn charcoal inside your home, garage or tent.
5. Never leave your car running in the garage. Even with the door open fumes can seep into the house.
6. Do not use gas appliances such as ranges, ovens or clothes dryers to heat your home.
7. Never line the bottom of natural gas or propane ovens with aluminum foil. The foil blocks the combustion air flow and can produce carbon monoxide.
8. During home renovations, make sure that appliance vents and chimneys are not blocked by tarps and debris.
9. Install a CO alarm that meets the requirements of the current UL 2034 safety standard. Place CO monitors in the hall near every sleeping area in your home and make sure alarms are not covered by curtains or furniture. It is important to note, however, that while a carbon monoxide alarm provides added protection, it is not a substitute for proper use of appliances and generators that can produce CO.
10. If you suspect you are experiencing any of the symptoms of CO poisoning, get outside to fresh air immediately. Call your emergency services, fire department or 911 from a neighbor’s home. It is also important that you contact your doctor immediately for a proper diagnosis. Prompt medical attention is essential.
Carbon monoxide is a killer. These preventive measures and an awareness of the symptoms of CO poisoning could save the lives of you and your family.
US Consumer Product Safety Commission
US Environmental Protection Agency