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Carbon Monoxide: The Invisible Killer

  • More than 400 Americans die from unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 20,000 visit the emergency room, and more than 4,000 others are hospitalized.

    Where Does Carbon Monoxide Come From?

       

    Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless gas that often goes undetected, striking victims caught off guard or in their sleep.

    This "silent killer" is produced by burning fuel in cars or trucks, small engines, stoves, lanterns, grills, fireplaces, gas ranges, portable generators or furnaces. When the gas builds up in enclosed spaces, people or animals who breathe it can be poisoned. Ventilation does not guarantee safety.

    The Consumer Product Safety Commission says about 170 people in the United States die every year from carbon monoxide produced by non-automotive consumer products, such as room heaters. So as the weather turns colder, it's important to take extra precautions.

    Who is at Risk?


    Exposure to carbon monoxide can result in permanent neurological damage or death, and anyone can be at risk.

    The CDC says infants, the elderly, and people with chronic heart disease, anemia or breathing problems are more prone to illness or death, but carbon monoxide doesn't discriminate – especially if certain conditions are present.

    In July 2015, for example, four young people and a dog were found dead of carbon monoxide poisoning inside a cabin in Maine. Authorities believe they went to bed without shutting off a gas-powered generator running in the basement.

    How Can I Prevent Carbon Monoxide Poisoning in My Home?


    Winter can be a prime time for carbon monoxide poisoning as people turn on their heating systems and mistakenly warm their cars in garages.

    The National Safety Council recommends you install a battery-operated carbon monoxide detector in your home near the bedrooms. Check or replace the battery when you change the time on your clocks each spring and fall. The CDC offers these additional tips:

    • Have your heating system, water heater and any other gas or coal-burning appliances serviced by a qualified technician every year
    • Do not use portable flameless chemical heaters indoors
    • Never use a generator inside your home, basement or garage or less than 20 feet from any window, door or vent; fatal levels of carbon monoxide can be produced in just minutes
    • Have your chimney checked and cleaned every year, and make sure your fireplace damper is open before lighting a fire and well after the fire is extinguished
    • Make sure your gas appliances are vented properly
    • Never use a gas oven for heating your home
    • Never let a car idle in the garage
    • Know the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning

    Steps to Take When Carbon Monoxide Alarm Sounds


    The CPSC says never ignore a carbon monoxide alarm, and do not try to find the source of the gas. Instead, follow these steps:

    • Immediately move outside to fresh air
    • Call emergency services, fire department or 911
    • Do a head count to check that all persons are accounted for
    • Do not reenter the premises until emergency responders have given you permission to do so

Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

The U.S. Fire Administration has put together materials on the dangers of carbon monoxide. Included is a list of carbon monoxide poisoning symptoms.

Low to moderate carbon monoxide poisoning is characterized by:

  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness

High level carbon monoxide poisoning results in:

  • Mental confusion
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of muscular coordination
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Death

Symptom severity varies depending on the level of carbon monoxide and duration of exposure. Mild symptoms sometimes are mistaken for flu.

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The National Safety Council eliminates preventable deaths at work, in homes and communities, and on the road through leadership, research, education and advocacy.

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