Carbon monoxide is a hazard any time and anywhere there is a fuel source (wood, gas, kerosene, coal, oil) that is incompletely burned. People have inhaled deadly fumes emitted by vehicles, generators or grills in garages attached to a home or apartment building when fumes seep inside. Hunters and fishermen can be poisoned by running propane heaters in trailers, cabins or fishing shanties. Boaters have been poisoned with fatal results from being pulled behind boats on body boards. Typically, the most common source of carbon monoxide is a faulty furnace or wood stove, or when heating with a gas oven or propane heater. But water heaters, clothes dryers and fireplaces are other common sources of the gas. Here are some tips on how to keep your family safe:
• Carbon monoxide in its pure form is odorless, colorless, and tasteless and about the same density as room air, so it is hard at times to tell when one is being exposed. Levels can build over time or with an acute exposure. People become ill with very non-specific symptoms including headache, nausea, dizziness and confusion, and they may think they have the flu. More severe exposures lead to vomiting, loss of consciousness and death. When an entire family feels ill at home but symptoms disappear when they are out of the home, a "red flag" should warn everyone that something is not right.
• If carbon monoxide poisoning is suspected, open windows or doors immediately for ventilation and leave the house/area immediately. Once in fresh air, call your poison center for advice, or if someone is seriously ill or unconscious, call 911. Pregnant women who are exposed to carbon monoxide are at special risk since their baby can be exposed to higher levels than the mother.
• There are often state and local regulations governing placement of CO alarms in a residential setting, so check with your local fire department or other agency to make sure you are in compliance. Carbon monoxide alarms are often required on each level of the home (not an attic or garage) if there are any fuel-burning appliances inside. They are usually placed near sleeping areas when possible.
• Read and keep the instructions with each alarm regarding placement, cleaning and battery life. Some carbon monoxide alarms are combined with smoke alarms, but since carbon monoxide alarms need to be replaced every five years and smoke alarms can be good for up to 10 years, they can be purchased separately.
For questions about poisons, call your local poison control center toll-free at 1-800-222-1222.