Carbon Monoxide – The Silent, Cold Weather Killer
What is carbon monoxide?
Carbon monoxide, or CO, is a colorless, odorless, toxic gas. It is produced by the incomplete combustion of solid, liquid, and gaseous fuels. Appliances fueled with gas, oil, kerosene, or wood may produce CO. If such appliances are not installed, maintained, and used properly, CO may accumulate to dangerous and even deadly levels in cars, homes, or poorly ventilated areas.
Where does CO come from?
Carbon monoxide is produced by devices that burn fuels. Therefore, any fuel-burning appliance in your home is a potential CO source. Under normal circumstances, CO should not be detectable in the typical home or workplace.
When appliances are kept in good working condition, they produce little CO. But improperly operating or improperly vented appliances can produce elevated — even fatal — CO concentrations in your home. Likewise, using kerosene heaters or charcoal grills indoors, or running a car in a garage, can cause levels high enough to result in CO poisoning.
Common sources of CO include the following wood or gas-fueled appliances:
- Water heaters
- Room heaters
- Portable generators
- Cooking ranges
- Wood burning stoves
- Charcoal grills
- Automobiles run in closed garages
Who is at risk of CO poisoning?
Any person or animal in space shared with a device capable of generating CO should be considered at risk of CO poisoning. CO exposures especially affect unborn babies, infants, and people with anemia or a history of heart disease. Breathing low levels of the chemical can cause fatigue and increase chest pain in people with chronic heart disease.
Each year, nearly 5,000 people in the United States are treated in hospital emergency rooms for CO poisoning; however, this number is believed to be an underestimate of CO poisoning because many people with CO symptoms mistake the symptoms for the flu or are misdiagnosed.
Why is CO the silent, cold weather killer?
Carbon monoxide poisoning can kill without warning, as your family sleeps.
Because CO gas has no warning properties, even at toxic or life-threatening levels, it is considered a silent killer. And since so many deaths occur as the result of defective or poorly operated home heating devices, CO has been termed the “silent, cold weather killer.”
Although not always experienced, the initial symptoms of CO are similar to the flu (but without the fever). But it can also mimic other ailments like gastric flu or stomach upset, the symptoms include:
- Irregular breathing
It is critical to note that death from CO poisoning can result in some or all of these symptoms never being experienced, in which case the overexposed victim simply “falls asleep” and never regains consciousness.
How can I prevent CO poisoning?
Dangerous levels of CO can be prevented by proper appliance maintenance, installation, and use. Timely inspections of potentially CO-producing equipment, and the use of CO toxic level concentration alarms, are also key to avoiding a CO fatality.