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The Big Sleep: Don't close your eyes to Carbon Monoxide

Contributed by QuinStreet Publishing LLC

Carbon Monoxide (CO) is the most prevalent poison in our environment.

It is responsible for more unintentional deaths than any other poison, with a current average of 534 deaths, annually, in the United States. Between 1995 and 2000, an estimated average of 10,200 people reported to hospital emergency rooms each year for non-fire, non-fatal injuries associated with consumer products, possibly related to CO (Mah, 2000).

CO is an odorless, colorless, nonirritating gas produced by the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels such as gasoline, wood, coal, propane, oil and methane. In the home, heating and cooking equipment are typical sources of CO and, of course, vehicle exhausts. Portable heaters and lamps burning propane can also be hazardous in an outdoor setting with reduced ventilation, such as tents, campers and ice fishing houses.

If you inhale CO, it gradually replaces oxygen in the bloodstream, eventually causing suffocation. Mild CO poisoning feels like the flu, but more serious poisoning leads to difficulty breathing and even death. Symptoms vary from person to person, depending on age, overall health, the amount of CO present and the period of exposure. There are certain groups at greater risk, for example children who suffer from asthma, and there is some research suggesting that fetal development can be adversely affected at higher levels of CO in the bloodstream, even if the mother appears to be unaffected (Penney, undated).

Deaths from unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning have dropped in recent years, from about 700 in 1993 to 592 in 2000 (Mah, 2000). This may be due to lower CO emissions from automobiles, safer heating and cooking appliances, and the increased use of CO detectors in the home, available from independent home security contractors.

Have a look through the following checklist to see if your family could be at risk from CO:

  1. Do you always take your car out of the garage immediately after starting the ignition?
  2. Do you ever run the engine indoors, even if the garage doors are open?
  3. Do you have any household appliances that run carbon-based fuel (e.g. water heaters, cookers, fireplaces and stoves)?
  4. Are your household appliances inspected before the cold weather sets in, including checks for proper installation, cracks, leaks and blockages?
  5. Have you ever used faulty equipment, knowingly?
  6. Are you sure that ventilation is adequate for fire flues, enclosed central heating and furnaces, and stoves?
  7. When purchasing new equipment, do you make sure that an independent testing laboratory has approved the products?
  8. When installing equipment, do you hire a qualified technician to do the job?
  9. Have you ever used anything other than battery-powered heaters and lights in tents, trailers and motor homes?
  10. Do you have adequate CO detection equipment installed in your home?

Usually, CO detectors may sound an alarm when levels are higher than normal, but still not at dangerous levels. This is likely to be before symptoms have manifested themselves. This is the time to deal with the problem. Any later and it might be too late.

A CO detector should help detect the presence of high, lethal, levels of CO and chronic, low levels of CO; it should be self-calibrating and self-zeroing, allowing continued use after primary detection; it should have a long working life of at least two years and it should have an easy to understand operating manual. Many modern detectors also have useful features such as portability, memory capacity of past events and digital readout of CO concentrations.

Buying and installing CO detection is easy. Companies that specialize in more than one area of home safety will usually help you combine CO detection with smoke detection, and other home security devices.

CO is an insidious intruder. It can put your whole family to sleep painlessly and permanently. Please, don't close your eyes to the facts! Installing a CO detector in your home could help save lives.

Burton, L E (1996) “Toxicity from Low Level Human Exposure to Carbon Monoxide” US Consumer Product Safety Commission
Centers for Disease Control and Protection (1999) “Carbon monoxide poisoning deaths associated with Camping”
Consumer Product Safety Commission. United States of America (2002) Non-Fire Carbon Monoxide Deaths and Injuries Associated with the use of Consumer Products
Enmet Corporation (2000) “Carbon Monoxide: A Fact Sheet”
Mah, Jean C. (2000) “Fire Carbon Monoxide Deaths and Injuries associated with the use of Consumer Products Annual Estimates” US Consumer Product Safety Commission October 2000
Meredith, T & Vale, A (1988) “Carbon Monoxide Poisoning” British Medical Journal
National Fire Protection Association
Penny, D G (undated) “Carbon Monoxide Toxicology” Carbon Monoxide Headquarters, Wayne State University

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