Carbon Monoxide - The Silent Killer
Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, toxic gas that is a by-product of burning fuel. It is the leading cause of poisoning death in the United States.
Carbon monoxide poisoning is most prevalent when home heating systems are operated after a time of non-use, and is usually thought of as a cold weather phenomenon. However, it can occur at any time of year, especially in cars and boats. Fifty seven percent of all CO poisonings occur in garages and in most cases the garage door is open.
Carbon monoxide replaces oxygen in the blood, interfering with the transport of needed oxygen to cells in the body. Exposure causes lightheadedness, headaches, confusion, nausea, sleepiness, neurological problems, even unconsciousness and death. Some symptoms occur within a few hours of exposure; other symptoms may come and go over months as a person inhales small but steady amounts of the gas. CO gas is generated in the home through the use of heating and cooking appliances and environmental tobacco smoke. Gasoline, kerosene, home heating fuels, firewood, and charcoal all release carbon monoxide when burned.
Carbon monoxide poisoning makes the news when it is acute, however chronic low exposure cases are probably more common and are very difficult to diagnose. You should consider CO poisoning whenever several members of a household become ill at the same time. Household pets, which often have a higher metabolism rate than humans, can also be a good indicator of CO exposure.
What to Do
Each year approximately 10,000 people seek medical help for carbon monoxide poisoning, and some 1,500 (including about 50 children) die from it. The Connecticut Poison Control Center receives at least five calls per week about reported CO poisonings during the winter months. If exposed to CO, open all windows, get everyone out of the house, and call for help. Breathing in fresh air and oxygen are the only antidotes.
The Madison Health Department recommends the following:
- Have the furnace and other fuel-burning equipment inspected yearly to make certain that they burn cleanly, that flues do not leak, and that vents are not blocked.
- Replace air filters in air systems. Clean chimneys once a year.
- Never use a kerosene heater, barbecue grill or hibachi indoors.
- Never leave vehicles or other combustion engines running in closed or open garages.
- Install a carbon monoxide detector (available at local hardware stores) where it will be heard when residents are sleeping.
- Never use paint remover in poorly ventilated spaces. Many paint strippers contain methyl chloride which converts to CO in the liver.
- Insure that boat engines are properly ventilated and don't work in the bilge areas with the engine running unless you are sure the area is well ventilated.
- Be sure to provide ventilation when using canned heating fuels such as Sterno, which can produce carbon monoxide.
For more information on carbon monoxide poisoning or carbon monoxide detectors
- Visit the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
- View the Connecticut Department of Public Health Fact Sheet
If you think you are being poisoned, call the Connecticut Poison Control Center at 800-343-2722 or your physician after you have left the area.