NEWARK–As the weather becomes colder, the threat of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning greatly increases. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, about 170 people die each year in the United States from CO produced by non-automotive consumer products such as furnaces, ranges, water heaters, space heaters, generators and fireplaces.
Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless and poisonous gas that can deprive the body of oxygen. It is produced by the incomplete burning of various fuels including coal, wood, charcoal, oil, kerosene and natural gas.
Michael Rosen, MD, Pediatric Director of the Emergency Department at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center and Children’s Hospital of New Jersey, reports that exposure to low levels of carbon monoxide can lead to headaches, sleepiness, fatigue, confusion and irritability and can have long term effects on overall health. At higher levels, it can result in nausea, vomiting, irregular heartbeat, impaired vision and coordination. At very high levels it can cause unconsciousness and death.
Because these symptoms can be similar to the flu, many people do not realize that carbon monoxide poisoning is the source of their illness.
“Carbon monoxide poisoning is very serious,” Dr. Rosen says. “Because you cannot see or smell the gas in the air, you do not know you are being exposed until you start to experience symptoms. If the poisoning occurs at night while you are sleeping, you may not even experience symptoms until it is too late.”
Dr. Rosen added that a carbon monoxide detector in the home is vital in detecting this poison. “Every home should have at least one CO detector. It should be considered just as important as a smoke detector and the batteries should be checked regularly.”
If you suspect that high levels of carbon monoxide are present in your home, you should get fresh air immediately.
“Open doors and windows, turn off combustion appliances, and leave the house,” Dr. Rosen says. “Then patients should go directly to an emergency room. Tell the physician you suspect CO poisoning. If CO poisoning has occurred, it can often be diagnosed by a simple blood test done soon after exposure.”
The more prolonged the exposure to CO is, the more detrimental the poisoning will be. Carbon monoxide exposures especially affect unborn babies, infants and people with anemia or a history of heart or respiratory disease.
Follow these simple steps to reduce exposure to carbon monoxide:
• Open flues when fireplaces are in use and have the chimney inspected and cleaned annually
• Do not idle the car inside the garage
• Never use charcoal indoors or in areas with inadequate ventilation, including a fireplace
• Use the correct fuel in kerosene heaters
• Do not sleep in a room with an unvented gas or kerosene space heater
• Have a trained professional inspect, clean and tune-up central heating systems like the furnace every year
• Make sure gas appliances have adequate ventilation so that carbon monoxide will not accumulate
• Do not use a gas stove to heat your home – even for a short period of time
Most importantly, do not ignore symptoms, particularly if more than one person in the home is experiencing them. “You could lose consciousness and die if you do nothing,” Dr. Rosen adds. If you suspect life-threatening problems due to carbon monoxide poisoning, always call 9-1-1.
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