Carbon Monoxide is colorless, odorless, tasteless. And deadly.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 400 Americans die each year from unintentional CO poisoning. Meantime, more than 20,000 are transported to emergency rooms, and more than 4,000 are hospitalized by CO poisoning annually. Children are particularly at risk because they breathe faster than adults and will take in more CO per pound of body weight. Babies, the elderly, and people with chronic disease also are more likely to be susceptible to CO poisoning.
While CO poisoning is a year-round hazard that sends patients to St. Clair Hospital’s Emergency Room, it is particularly an issue in the South Hills during the winter months, as we seal up our doors and windows and crank up the heat using CO-producing sources including gas furnaces, fireplaces and woodstoves, and kerosene or propane heaters.
And because the most common symptoms of CO poisoning mimic many of the same symptoms as the flu (headache, dizziness, weakness, upset stomach, vomiting, chest pain and confusion) many sufferers mistakenly believe they are simply “coming down with something” and will crawl into bed to rest—a potentially fatal decision.
Here are some tips to prevent you and your loved ones from falling victim to CO poisoning this winter:
- Install a carbon monoxide detector on each floor of your house (and, like your smoke detector, test the battery each month)
- Have your furnace and water heater (and any other gas, oil or coal-burning appliances) inspected by a professional every year
- Have your chimney checked and cleaned regularly (and make sure the flue is open when using)
- Be sure to keep the exterior vent to your clothes dryer clear of any accumulating snow or other debris that might potentially prevent CO from escaping into the atmosphere
- Never use gas cooking stove tops and ovens to heat your home
- Always properly vent space heaters
- If you lose power and are using a generator, never use it inside your home or place it too close to a door, window or vent
- If your car is parked in an attached garage, resist the urge to warm it up before driving away. It only takes a few minutes for dangerous levels of CO to seep into your living quarters
- If you do believe your home is being overtaken by carbon monoxide, do not delay. Get everyone (including pets) outdoors immediately. Then call 911.
Owen T. Traynor, M.D. is an emergency room physician at St. Clair Hospital.