Every year some 500 Americans die suddenly in their homes from carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning. A little knowledge about the gas and taking some simple precautions can help reduce the chances of a dangerous situation happening in your home, says LSU AgCenter housing professor Dr. Claudette Reichel.
These deaths are especially tragic, sometimes claiming the lives of whole families. Carbon monoxide is a poisonous gas that blocks the blood’s ability to carry oxygen to the tissues. Victims die of suffocation.
The gas can be produced by fuel-burning appliances, including furnaces and boilers, hot water heaters, gas ranges, gas and kerosene space heaters, woodstoves and fireplaces and barbecue grills. Carbon monoxide is also produced by gasoline and diesel engines.
"What makes carbon monoxide especially dangerous is that it does not have an odor," Reichel says, explaining, "You can be exposed to this deadly gas without ever knowing it."
People who are exposed to CO develop symptoms such as headache, dizziness, nausea, shortness of breath and impaired judgment. These symptoms are often mistaken for the flu.
When all household members are affected, this mistaken diagnosis is sometimes reinforced. Certain individuals – infants, the elderly, those with breathing or circulation problems – are especially susceptible to this poison.
As carbon monoxide levels build up in the body, the effects of muscle weakness and impaired judgment can make it impossible to summon help, even if a serious problem is realized.
"If you think there is a possible carbon monoxide problem in your home, shut off fuel-burning appliances immediately and open the windows," Reichel says. "If occupants have signs of poisoning, evacuate the home as quickly as possible and get help. If you can’t get out of the house, open your windows (or break them) and call the police or fire department at 911."
What can you do to protect against carbon monoxide poisoning? The LSU AgCenter housing expert says the most important precaution is to understand that CO is produced whenever a fuel-burning appliance or motor is operating. If the exhaust fumes are allowed to collect in an enclosed area, or are directed into the home, trouble can result.
Reichel offers some potential causes of carbon monoxide deaths:
• Attached garages – Garages can be very dangerous if a car motor or other engine is running, especially if the door is closed. Carbon monoxide can accumulate to lethal levels. Also, CO can be drawn into the house, sometimes through pathways that may not be recognized.
• Barbecues – Gas and charcoal barbecues can give off lots of CO. They should never be used indoors or in enclosed spaces.
• Fireplaces – Fireplaces typically force large amounts of air up the chimney. If the damper is closed, however, when the fire is finished, smoldering embers produce abundant amounts of CO that can enter the living space.
• Heaters – Furnaces and boilers produce large amounts of combustion products that can quickly poison the air. A plugged chimney or rusted-out flue pipe can allow toxic gases to enter the home. This is why the heater needs regular service and inspection.
• Kitchen range and stove top – These can produce lots of CO and other noxious gases. Use a vent fan, and never use these appliances to heat the home.
• Space heaters – Fuel-fired space heaters (kerosene, oil, or gas-fired) produce toxic gases. If such appliances are used in a small, enclosed space with no fresh air supply, problems can arise. Make sure a door or window is open when in use, and never use when sleeping.
"Common sense and taking some simple precautions can help prevent these deaths," Reichel says, adding, "Everyone needs to know the dangers of carbon monoxide and the simple safety measures to avoid carbon monoxide poisonings."
Additional information on family and consumer topics is available by contacting an extension agent in your parish LSU AgCenter office. Also, log on to the Family and Consumer Sciences section under the Louisiana Cooperative Extension Service at the LSU AgCenter Web site: http://www.lsuagcenter.com/ .