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Carbon monoxide poisoning, prevention and awareness

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Every year, more than 50,000 people in the United States require emergency care, and over 400 people die, due to accidental carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning. There are steps you can take to help protect yourself and family from carbon monoxide poisoning, says Lindell Weaver, MD, director of hyperbaric medicine at Intermountain Medical Center and LDS Hospital. 

CO is found in fumes produced by portable generators, stoves, lanterns, and gas ranges, or by burning charcoal and wood. Carbon monoxide from these sources can build up in enclosed or partially enclosed spaces. People and animals in these spaces can be poisoned and can die from breathing CO.

Prevention Step #1 – Be aware of symptoms: Carbon monoxide poisoning can be lethal, sometimes with no advance sign of trouble. This is especially true when people are exposed during their sleep and are unaware or unable to call for help. Since carbon monoxide is odorless, colorless, and hard to detect without a monitor, it has been dubbed, the Silent Killer.

At lower levels of exposure, though, there are common symptoms to be aware of, including headache, fatigue, confusion, the feeling that something is not right, dizziness, achiness and even loss of consciousness.  

If you experience symptoms consistent with carbon monoxide poisoning, evacuate the area immediately and call 911.  At the Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy Department at Intermountain Healthcare Intermountain Medical Center and LDS Hospital, they treat carbon monoxide poisoning with high-flow oxygen, sometimes in a special room or capsule called a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, to reduce the chance of permanent brain damage.

Be suspicious of carbon monoxide if multiple individuals have “flu-like” symptoms all at once, especially if fever is absent.  Another clue about poisoning is if one improves when out of the area where the carbon monoxide exposure is occurring.

Unfortunately, once poisoned, individuals may run the risk of permanent brain or cardiac injury. Treatment for carbon monoxide poisoning reduces this risk, but even with prompt oxygen therapy, disability can still occur.  Therefore, thinking about carbon monoxide, and how to prevent it and avoid it is vitally important.

How dangerous is carbon monoxide?

There are three things that make carbon monoxide extremely dangerous: 1) The molecules of carbon monoxide are so small, they can easily travel through drywall; 2) Carbon monoxide doesn’t sink or rise – it mixes easily with the air inside a home; 3) It is an odorless gas, so without an alarm to notify you that it is in your home, you likely wouldn’t notice until it was too late. 

 
Why do I need a CO alarm?

Carbon monoxide can hurt and kill people. Sources of carbon monoxide include malfunctioning water heaters or furnaces inside your home, as well as vehicles or small engines operating nearby. Dr. Weaver has worked with several patients who were poisoned by vehicles or small engines that were left running outside the home, but the gas entered through an open window or other air intake points in the home. His team has also treated people who were exposed to carbon monoxide from a boat engine while vacationing on a lake.

 
What should I look for when buying a CO detector?

The price of carbon monoxide alarms ranges from $20 up to several hundred. Knowing what to look for when you head to a store or looking online can help you get the one that works best for your home. Dr. Weaver can’t endorse a specific brand of carbon monoxide alarms, but he strongly recommends one with a digital display.

The advantage of having a digital display is getting an earlier indication of carbon monoxide levels rising in the home. Carbon monoxide alarms don’t signal unless the gas levels reach a specified threshold for a predetermined length of time. But a digital display showing any number higher than zero indicates some level of the gas, and even low levels can be extremely dangerous. 

Dr. Weaver stresses that carbon monoxide alarms aren’t perfect. For example, many residential alarms won’t signal the alarm when the carbon monoxide levels are below 30 ppm (parts per million). But continuous exposure to those levels, especially people who are more susceptible (pregnant women, children, or people with an underlying issue like heart or lung disease), can cause health problems.

Where should I install my CO detector in my home?

Minimally, a carbon monoxide alarm should be placed in the master bedroom so that at night, while you are sleeping, it will signal you to dangerous levels of carbon monoxide and wake you up so you can address the problem. Dr. Weaver strongly recommends you have one carbon monoxide alarm on each level of your house where people are living. For example, if you have children who live in the basement of your home, then it is important to have a carbon monoxide alarm in their bedroom as well as the one in the master bedroom on another floor.  

 
How often should I replace my detector?

If you’re really serious about safety, replace your alarms every three to five years. The manufacturers may say seven years, but here in Utah, Dr. Weaver recommends at least every five years. The sensor in the detector is moist, and the dry air in Utah can impact that sensor’s effectiveness.

 
What are the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning?

Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning can occur immediately or more gradually after long-term exposure to the gas. Common symptoms may be flu-like and include dizziness, shortness of breath, headaches, confusion, nausea or fainting. If you experience any of these symptoms and are in an enclosed area, get fresh air immediately and get to an emergency department. Be sure and mention to the doctor that you suspect you may have been exposed to carbon monoxide.

 
Conclusion

Carbon monoxide alarms are a simple tool to help identify dangerous levels of the deadly gas and can save an entire family from getting hurt or even killed. If you don’t have an alarm in your home, Dr. Weaver strongly encourages you to pick one up and install it immediately. It can save your life, and the lives of the ones you love.
 

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