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Keep Home Safe From Carbon Monoxide

Experts offer advice about deadly gas

TUESDAY, Jan. 15, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- With winter's grip finally forcing more people inside more of the time, you need to be more aware of the invisible threat that lurks behind the now-closed doors.

The risk is from carbon monoxide, which is an odorless, colorless gas that, in high exposures, can cut off oxygen to the brain and heart, potentially causing neurological damage or even death.

But safety experts say there are some simple precautions that you can take to ensure your family's safety.

Carbon monoxide poisonings are responsible for about 200 fatalities in the United States each year, and account for another 5,000 to 10,000 emergency room visits, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).

The incomplete burning of solid, liquid and gaseous fuels produces carbon monoxide. Appliances fueled with natural gas, liquefied petroleum, oil, kerosene, coal or wood can produce carbon monoxide, as do burning charcoal and running cars.

Typical sources of carbon monoxide leaks in the home range from faulty furnaces, clogged chimney chutes and water heater problems to cars left running in garages or appliances used improperly inside the home.

One of the simplest measures that can be taken to protect a home against carbon monoxide problems is to have the furnace checked every year, says Ken Giles, spokesman for the CPSC.

"The maintenance people should be checking for blocked chimneys, cracked heat exchangers, breakage in piping or anything that could cause carbon monoxide to leak back into the house," says Giles.

Another standard precaution is to have a carbon monoxide alarm installed.

Otherwise, the first sign of carbon monoxide's presence could come from potentially serious symptoms that include headache, nausea, fatigue and dizziness, which can occur even with low-level exposures.

"The symptoms are best described as flu-like, but without the fever," explains Giles.

The giveaway clue is that the symptoms go away when you are no longer in the home.

"You'll feel better when you leave the house, but feel flu-ish when you come back," says Giles. "That's an indication that you might have low-level carbon monoxide poisoning.

The effects of carbon monoxide poisoning can be especially dangerous to children, who will probably be the first to experience symptoms, explains Dr. Jane Knapp, chairwoman of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Committee on Pediatric Emergency Medicine.

"You've got a small body that's subjected to the same amount of poison as everyone else," she explains. "So it's like the canaries that used to be used in the coal mines -- if the canary died, it was a signal for the miners to get out. Well, the children are like the canaries; they're the ones who would become symptomatic first, and who would maybe develop the worst symptoms."

Should you suspect that you or someone in your home is experiencing carbon monoxide poisoning, experts suggest leaving the house and going to an emergency room. The lack of a fever should tip doctors off that carbon monoxide is a possibility, and such poisoning can be confirmed with a blood test.

To further prevent carbon monoxide poisoning, the National SAFE KIDS Campaign offers the following advice:

  • Install an Underwriters Laboratories (UL)-approved carbon monoxide detector. It is estimated these detectors may prevent half of all carbon monoxide poisoning deaths. They should be installed in every sleeping area, and on the ceiling at least 15 feet from fuel-burning appliances.
  • If the alarm goes off, leave the home immediately and call the fire department or your local utility company. If a family member displays symptoms of poisoning, seek medical attention right away.
  • Ensure that space heaters, furnaces, fireplaces and wood-burning stoves are vented properly and inspected annually. Have your chimney cleaned each year.
  • Never leave your car's engine running in the garage, particularly if it's attached to your home.
  • Never heat your home with an oven.
  • Never burn charcoal in your home.

What To Do

Here's more information from the Environmental Protection Agency on protecting your family from carbon monoxide poisoning.

In addition, the CPSC offers more information on carbon monoxide.

SOURCES: Interviews with Ken Giles, spokesman, U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, Washington, D.C.; Jane Knapp, M.D., chairwoman, American Academy of Pediatrics' Committee on Pediatric Emergency Medicine, and professor, pediatrics, Children's Mercy Hospital, Kansas City, Mo.; National SAFE KIDS Campaign press release
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