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Posted February 3, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Awareness, prevention important to avoid deadly carbon monoxide

Gary Yew, Shenandoah County fire and rescue chief, holds a typical battery-operated carbon monoxide detector. The detectors measure levels of the dangerous gas, which is colorless, odorless and tasteless. Photos by Rich Cooley/Daily

Yew holds a First Alert carbon monoxide detector. He says detectors should be placed on every floor and by each sleeping area of homes that use gas appliances or burn fuel for heat.

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By Jessica Wiant -- Daily Staff Writer

It's cold out and you're burning some extra fuel around the house to keep warm -- maybe you've lit the kerosene space heater, or are burning the wood stove.

You and some of the members of the family also seem to be coming down with something typical of this time of year. You're feeling fatigued, nauseous and have a headache.

Maybe it's the flu -- or maybe it's carbon monoxide poisoning.

Carbon monoxide "is a product of combustion," says Shenandoah County Fire and Rescue Chief Gary Yew.

Anytime fossil fuels are burned a certain level of carbon monoxide is released, he explains. In the home, sources include kerosene space heaters, wood stoves, gas furnaces and other gas appliances, according to Yew.

When such appliances are in proper condition, the gases released into the air are vented away from occupants and don't pose a danger, Yew says.

When they aren't working properly, however, they can be dangerous, according to Yew.

When carbon monoxide is inhaled, it takes the place of oxygen in the blood's hemoglobin, says Dr. Stephen Haering, director of the Lord Fairfax District of the Virginia Department of Health.

Hemoglobin's role is to carry oxygen throughout the body, he says, and when carbon monoxide takes the place of oxygen, the body doesn't get the oxygen it needs.

Dos and don'ts to avoid poisoning

  • DO have fuel-burning appliances inspected by a trained professional at the beginning of every heating season. Make sure that flues and chimneys are connected, in good condition and not blocked.
  • DO Choose appliances that vent their fumes to the outside whenever possible, have them properly installed, and maintain them according to manufacturer's instructions.
  • DO read and follow all of the instructions that accompany any fuel-burning device -- and carefully follow the cautions that come with the device.
  • DON'T idle the car in a garage -- even if the garage door to the outside is open. Fumes can build up very quickly in the garage and living area of your home.
  • DON'T use a a gas oven to heat your home, even for a short time.
  • DON'T ever use a charcoal grill indoors -- even in a fireplace.
  • DON'T sleep in any room with an unvented gas or kerosene space heater.
  • DON'T use any gasoline-powered engines in enclosed spaces.
  • DON'T ignore symptoms, particularly if more than one person is feeling them. You could lose consciousness and die if you do nothing.

-- Source: EPA fact sheet, "Protect Your Family and Yourself from Carbon Monoxide Poisoning"

"In essence ... you're suffocating on a molecular level," he says.

Carbon monoxide poisoning causes many symptoms similar to the flu, according to Haering, including fatigue, headaches, nausea and vomiting. Often neurological symptoms will be present, as well, he says, including confusion and stumbling or clumsiness.

Carbon monoxide differs from the flu, however, in that flu sufferers experience a fever, body aches and cough, Haering says.

Mild poisoning can feel like a headache with or without nausea that goes away when the person gets fresh air, Haering says.

Carbon monoxide poisoning is more prevalent in the winter, according to Haering, because lower temperatures drive people to burn fuel indoors to stay warm.

Untreated, carbon monoxide poisoning can be fatal.

"One symptom is death, sadly enough," Haering says.

The American Association of Poison Control Centers advises people to consider carbon monoxide poisoning as a possibility when symptoms occur in enclosed spaces during cold weather and in multiple people at the same time.

There is no safe threshold for exposure to carbon monoxide because different levels affect different people differently, Haering says.

The good news is that with proper prevention, any home can be safe.

Don't use anything that burns gas or charcoal indoors, Haering says, and if you cannot afford to heat your home properly, turn to friends and family for help.

Yew says that when his department detects high levels of carbon monoxide in a home a malfunctioning appliance is usually the source.

Get all fuel-burning appliances, including wood stoves, gas furnaces and gas stoves, inspected every year.

"The best prevention is annual inspection of home heating equipment," Yew says.

Chimney sweeps are capable of inspecting chimneys and wood-burning stoves, Yew says, while gas and appliance vendors should be able to inspect gas-burning equipment.

Another source of carbon monoxide can be kerosene space heaters. With those, Yew says to review the manufacturer's instructions carefully and take care to use a clean wick and clean kerosene.

An additional cold weather danger is starting a car in the garage to let it warm up, according to Yew.

Improper ventilation can allow exhaust fumes to enter the home and raise carbon monoxide levels -- so do not run the car in an attached garage.

Finally, carbon monoxide detectors are relatively inexpensive and easy to install.

During cold weather, Yew says calls to 911 about carbon monoxide detectors sounding are common, but when tested, carbon monoxide levels are rarely high enough to be a health risk, Yew says.

That just means the detectors are doing their job.

They work by measuring carbon monoxide levels in parts per million, Yew says. They activate at a preset level before the carbon monoxide becomes dangerous to occupants.

The detectors are battery operated, so the battery should be changed once a year, and the alarm can be tested to make sure it's working.

Yew recommends a detector on each floor and one by every sleeping area in any home that uses fuel for heat or appliances. Homes that use electricity, in other words, shouldn't be at risk.

The fire and rescue department is available for people who need help installing the detectors, Yew says.

Whether you have a detector, if you suspect carbon monoxide poisoning, you need to take immediate action.

"The first thing to do is get fresh air," Haering says. "Then call 911."

Get everyone out of the house immediately, including pets, which also can suffer from poisoning, Haering says.

Treatment will be required, but don't drive to the hospital. If you have been exposed to carbon monoxide you will need lots of oxygen, he says, which emergency technicians will be able to provide when they arrive.

Yew echoes the importance of calling 911. Fire departments have devices to test for carbon monoxide and will check levels when they arrive. They will also track down the source, clear the air with exhaust fans and advise residents on how to proceed with fixing the problem and whether it is safe to go back inside.

More information about reducing the risks of carbon monoxide is available by calling the EPA at (800) 438-4318 or the American Association of Poison Control Center's toll-free poison control hotline at (800) 222-1222.

* Contact Jessica Wiant at jwiant@nvdaily.com

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