According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, carbon monoxide is the leading cause of accidental poisoning deaths in the United States.
Nearly half of all accidental carbon monoxide deaths occurring during the winter. This odorless, tasteless and colorless gas can be emitted from poorly functioning or unvented furnaces or other gas-powered home appliances. Most carbon monoxide poisoning victims die in their sleep without experiencing the early warning symptoms, like headaches, dizziness or nausea.
"More than 500 people die each year from unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning and thousands develop symptoms that require emergency medical attention," said Mary Rosner, Marinette County, Wis., public health officer. "The best way to protect your family from the risks of carbon monoxide is to recognize the sources of the gas and to take preventative measures to limit your exposure."
Electrical and battery-operated carbon monoxide detectors for homes and recreational use are available at most hardware and discount stores. Carbon monoxide detectors should be tested regularly to ensure they are functioning and batteries in the units should be changed annually.
During particularly cold winter days, some families make dangerous and unfortunate decisions in an attempt to heat their homes. Carbon monoxide can be generated by improper ventilation of furnaces; generators; gasoline, propane or charcoal-burning devices; car exhaust systems; and wood-burning stoves. Running any of these systems without proper ventilation can quickly lead to deadly levels of carbon monoxide in the air.
Many gas-powered heating products release carbon monoxide as they operate and can be dangerous in enclosed spaces. Make sure that you are using a heating method that is designed for indoor use and read the instructions and warning labels to ensure that you have appropriate ventilation around the unit even if that means opening exterior doors or windows.
To protect your family from the risks of carbon monoxide poisoning, follow these simple safety tips:
- Make sure that you have a carbon monoxide detector on each level of your home, especially near bedrooms. Carbon monoxide detectors are as important to your family's safety as smoke detectors if you do not have detectors in your home, purchase and install them immediately.
- Have your furnace or wood-burning stoves inspected annually to ensure that it is structurally and functionally sound and that it vents properly to the outside of your home.
- Never run a gasoline or propane heater or a grill (gas or charcoal) inside your home for warmth. Any heating system that burns fuel will produce carbon monoxide. Use a battery-powered detector where you have fuel burning devices but no electric outlets, such as in tents, cabins, RVs, and boats with enclosed cabins.
- Never run a car in an enclosed space. If a vehicle is running, you must have a door to the outside open.
- Generators should be run a safe distance from the home. Never run a generator in the home or garage.
Breathing carbon monoxide displaces the oxygen in the blood and can cause death in minutes at high levels. Symptoms of overexposure to carbon monoxide are often mistaken for the flu and include headaches; fatigue; dizziness; shortness of breath/chest pain; nausea/vomiting; and confusion.
If you experience any of these symptoms or your carbon monoxide detector sounds an alarm, you should head outside immediately for fresh air and call 911.