Carbon monoxide: Winter’s silent killer

Two-thirds of all carbon monoxide deaths (non-fire related) occur in November, December, January and February. Reports to Fire Departments nationwide averaged 72,000 annually between 2006 and 2010.

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless, poisonous and, potentially, deadly gas that is produced by the incomplete burning of fuels, such as wood, coal, charcoal, oil, kerosene, propane and natural gas. Internal combustion engine equipment, including portable generators, cars, lawn mowers and power washers, produces CO. Cigarette smoking also produces CO. Because CO has no taste, odor or color, it is not detected by the senses.

CO poisoning causes more than 400 deaths annually nationwide. Two-thirds of all non-fire related CO deaths in the U.S. take place during the four coldest months of the year: November, December, January and February. Increased use of home furnaces and portable heaters during these months and portable gas generators during power outages contributes to CO poisoning.

Increased levels of CO in the air you breathe reduce your ability to absorb oxygen into your system. The effects from breathing CO will depend on the amount of CO in the air (concentration), the length of exposure (time) and the overall health of the person who was exposed. The initial symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning can be mistaken for the flu. These symptoms include headache, fatigue, nausea, dizziness and shortness of breath. The most notable exception is the absence of a fever with CO poisoning while there is a fever with the flu.

According to Michigan State University Extension, some ways to reduce potential exposure to carbon monoxide are:

  • Make sure appliances are installed and operating according to manufacturer’s instructions.
  • Check to insure all fuel burning appliances and heating equipment are properly maintained and vented and vents are clear.
  • Never operate a portable generator or other gas-powered equipment in any enclosed structure – including a basement, garage or shed.
  • Never leave a car running in the garage even when the garage door is open.
  • Never use gas appliances, such as ranges, dryers or ovens, to heat your home.
  • Do not cover the bottom of a gas or propane oven with aluminum foil. This will block the combustion air flow and produce CO.
  • Install CO alarms in the hallway of each sleeping area in the home. These can be plug-in alarms or hard-wired. Make sure, whatever type you choose; it has a battery back up for use during power outages.
  • Have smokers smoke outdoors to reduce second-hand smoke effects from CO in the home.

While winter poses the greatest risk for carbon monoxide exposure, summer recreation activities can result in exposure as well. Fuel burning equipment, camp stoves, charcoal grills and motorized boats, also produce CO and should be maintained properly and used carefully to reduce exposure.

For more information on carbon monoxide and its impacts, visit the Consumer Product Safety Commission website and search “carbon monoxide questions and answers” and the Environmental Protection Agency Indoor Air Quality website.

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