Carbon monoxide: protect yourself from this invisible poison

Carbon monoxide: protect yourself from this invisible poison

By CHICAGO–You can’t smell it or taste it, but carbon monoxide (CO) is the leading cause of poisoning death in the United States. CO is a colorless, odorless gas that is produced as a result of the incomplete burning of carbon-containing fuels. As winter approaches, Illinois residents are reminded to take extra precautions to prevent CO poisoning, as well as to recognize its symptoms and signs, and to know the proper first-aid steps to follow in the event of an exposure.

CHICAGO–You can’t smell it or taste it, but carbon monoxide (CO) is the leading cause of poisoning death in the United States. CO is a colorless, odorless gas that is produced as a result of the incomplete burning of carbon-containing fuels. As winter approaches, Illinois residents are reminded to take extra precautions to prevent CO poisoning, as well as to recognize its symptoms and signs, and to know the proper first-aid steps to follow in the event of an exposure.

Last fall, the Illinois Poison Center (IPC), which offers free poison prevention treatment and advice via a statewide hotline, 1-800-942-5969, handled 596 cases related to CO exposures.

Common sources of CO found in people’s homes include oil, wood or gas furnaces, space heaters (those that use kerosene), gas or oil water heaters, gas stoves or dryers. These appliances emit CO during regular use, and it may become a problem when there is leak from the vent that carries CO out of the home, or when an appliance or a piece of equipment malfunctions or is poorly ventilated. Other sources of CO include: cars, trucks, motorcycles and mopeds; charcoal grills, candles and gas lanterns; and gasoline-powered lawn mowers, snow blowers, chain saws and weed-eaters.

Prevention is the key to ensuring that CO will not be a problem in your home. The following prevention tips will help to keep your family safe from possible CO exposures:

l Have all fuel-burning appliances, furnaces, vents and fireplaces inspected at the beginning of each heating season by a professional technician.

l Make sure appliances and chimneys have proper airflow.

l Do not use an oven or gas range for heating your home.

l Do not let the space heater run or leave the stove or fireplace burning while you are sleeping.

l Use charcoal and gas grills only in well-ventilated areas–never use them inside your home or in a tent.

l Have your car’s exhaust system inspected for possible leaks.

l Never let your car’s engine run in the garage, even if the garage door is open.

l Do not sleep in a parked car, or let anyone travel or sleep in the covered bed of a pick-up truck while the engine is running.

“Although anyone can be poisoned by CO, pregnant women, young children, the elderly and those with respiratory illnesses, heart disease or anemia are at greater risk,” said Tony Burda, chief poison specialist at the IPC. “CO poisoning usually occurs slowly over a period of several hours; however, at very high concentrations, CO can kill in minutes.”

Early symptoms of CO poisoning—including headache, nausea, vomiting and dizziness—can mimic the flu or other illnesses. More significant poisoning symptoms also can include a throbbing headache, drowsiness, confusion and heart irregularities. Severe poisonings can cause convulsions, unconsciousness, brain damage and even death.

“If you think someone may have been exposed to carbon monoxide, fresh air is the most important treatment,” said Burda. “Open the windows wide and help the victim outside. Once you are out of immediate danger, call the IPC at 1-800-942-5969 to report your symptoms.”

Burda says the IPC’s poison specialists will advise you regarding the need for medical care and also direct you to contact a certified health and ventilation contractor, the gas company, or the fire department for additional support if it is needed.

CO detectors are another way to protect your family from being exposed to dangerous levels of CO gas. CO detectors function like smoke detectors to warn you before CO concentrations reach dangerous levels. The Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends that CO detectors be placed on each floor of your home, especially in sleeping areas, and near any major gas-burning appliances. Using CO detectors that sound an alarm (and not just show a change in color) is preferred, since they can warn sleeping persons of potential danger. However, if you suspect there is a problem in your home, even though your CO detector alarm has not gone off, you still should have your home checked by a professional. Do not place detectors within five feet of gas-burning appliances or near cooking or bathing areas. Always follow the manufacturer’s directions for placement, operation and maintenance of the warning device. CO detectors should meet Underwriter Laboratories, Inc. standards, have a long-term warranty, and be easy to self-test and reset to ensure proper functioning.

The IPC is the only certified, regional poison center in the state, serving all of Illinois, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Staffed by physicians, nurses, pharmacists and other poison specialists, the IPC welcomes calls from the public and health care professionals on the treatment of poisonings, overdoses, medication problems, occupational exposures, hazardous material incidents and other poison-related concerns. The IPC is a program of the Metropolitan Chicago Healthcare Council (MCHC), a membership and service association composed of more than 130 hospitals and health care organizations working together to improve the quality of health care services.

Free IPC phone stickers and poison prevention brochures can be obtained by calling the IPC toll-free at 1-800-942-5969 or visiting the IPC’s Web site at www.mchc.org/ipc.

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