Colder Weather Brings a Silent Killer

Carbon monoxide poisoning linked to home heating can be prevented, experts say

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SUNDAY, Nov. 5, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- It's home heating season again, and people need to take steps to prevent carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning and fires in their homes.

So say experts at the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The agencies are urging consumers to schedule a professional inspection of all fuel-burning heating systems, including furnaces, boilers, fireplaces, wood stoves, water heaters, chimneys, flues and vents.

"Protect your family this winter. The best way to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning is to have a professional inspection every year and install working CO alarms in your home," Nancy Nord, CPSC acting chairman, said in a prepared statement.

"Carbon monoxide is a silent killer. This colorless, odorless, poisonous gas kills nearly 500 U.S. residents each year, five times as many as West Nile virus," Dr. Howard Frumkin, director of the CDC's National Center for Environmental Health, said in a prepared statement.

"CO poisoning is a persistent and tragic public health problem that can be eliminated if people become aware of the danger and take some simple steps to protect themselves, their families and their pets," Frumkin said.

Heating systems are the leading cause of CO poisoning in the United States, followed by vehicles that are left running in garages. Gasoline-powered generators that are used during power outages are another source of CO poisoning.

Each year, at least 15,000 Americans suffer from accidental CO exposure, according to the CDC. Symptoms of CO poisoning include headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, chest pain and confusion. Extended exposure can lead to loss of consciousness and death. People who are asleep or intoxicated can die from CO poisoning without experiencing any symptoms.

The CPSC also noted that home heating equipment is the second most common cause of residential fires. Cooking fires are the leading cause. Portable heaters, including space heaters, are the top cause of deaths in home heating equipment-related fires.

Chimneys and fireplaces are the leading sources of home heating equipment fires, accounting for about 60 percent of the nearly 36,000 estimated home heating equipment fires in the United States each year, the CPSC said.

The CPSC and CDC offer the following safety tips:

  • Have your heating system, water heater, and any other gas, oil, or coal burning appliances serviced by a qualified technician every year.
  • Install battery-operated CO and smoke alarms in your home.
  • Place CO alarms outside the bedrooms in each separate sleeping area.
  • Place smoke alarms on each level of the house and inside every bedroom.
  • Replace smoke and CO alarm batteries when you change the time on your clocks each spring and fall. Check the batteries monthly.
  • If a smoke or CO alarm sounds, leave your home immediately and call 911.
  • Seek immediate medical attention if you suspect CO poisoning or feel dizzy, lightheaded or nauseous.
  • Have flues or chimneys inspected before each heating season for leakage and blockage by creosote or debris.
  • Open the fireplace damper before you light a fire and keep it open until the ashes are cool. Never close the damper if the ashes are warm.

More information

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has more about preventing CO poisoning.

SOURCE: U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission/U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, news release, October 2006

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