By MAJ. RUBEN I. ORTIZ, III Corps Surgeons Office. Fort Hood, Texas December 9, 2011
The winter months are when individuals are most at risk for carbon monoxide poisoning. Known as the "silent killer," CO is a colorless, odorless, tasteless and nonirritating gas. According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, CO poisoning is a leading cause of unintentional poisoning deaths in the United States.
Carbon monoxide develops from the incomplete combustion of wood, coal, oil, kerosene, natural gas, gasoline and propane. People risk exposure to the poison when they heat their homes with outdoor grills, hibachis or gas ovens with the oven door opened. The poisonous gas emitted from burning fuels or from car exhaust can build up very quickly and overcome individuals without warning, even in areas that seem to be well ventilated.
At lower levels, the initial symptoms of CO poisoning may include fatigue, headache, dizziness, nausea, visual disturbances, irritability and confusion. Unfortunately, diagnosis is problematic because these symptoms are nonspecific and may be mistaken for the flu or food poisoning. If you experience any of these symptoms in your home but feel better when you go outside -- and then find the symptoms reappear once you're back inside -- you may have CO poisoning.
As exposure levels increase, the symptoms of CO poisoning become more severe. At moderate levels, individuals may experience tightness across the chest, severe headaches, dizziness, drowsiness and nausea. Prolonged or high exposures may result in vomiting, confusion, muscle weakness, collapse and even death.
Preventing many CO poisoning deaths is relatively easy to do with regular maintenance of heating systems and the installation of CO detectors. There are a variety of detectors on the market, all of which monitor the air for high levels of CO. The detector identifies CO from any source; however, it will not detect smoke, fire or any other gas.
For safety's sake, install at least one CO detector near sleeping areas in homes with portable heaters or gas or oil furnaces. Place additional detectors in living areas or near, but not in, the furnace room. The detector should be in an area where everyone in the house will hear it -- even those sleeping.
However, never consider CO detectors as a replacement for properly using and maintaining fuel-burning appliances, the Environmental Protection Agency cautions. If you suspect you are experiencing CO poisoning, get fresh air immediately. Open the windows and doors for more ventilation, turn off any combustion appliances and leave the house. Once away from the source of exposure, seek prompt medical attention and call your fire department for CO detection. For more information about CO poisoning prevention, visit the EPA's website at www.epa.gov.
To reduce your chances of carbon monoxide poisoning, check out the following precautions that could save your life:
• Have fuel-burning appliances such as furnaces, water heaters, ranges, ovens, dryers, space heaters, fireplaces and wood stoves inspected and serviced by a trained professional before the onset of cooler temperatures.
• Purchase appliances that vent fumes to the outside of your home. Have those appliances installed and maintained by professionals. Ensure you read, understand and follow the safety precautions for each of these appliances.
• Never sleep in a room with an unvented, fuel-burning space heater.
• Never use a gas oven to heat your home -- even for a short period of time.