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Beware the Silent Killer - Carbon Monoxide

Release Date: 1/26/2005
Contact Information: Donna Heron, (215) 814-5113

Donna Heron, (215) 814-5113

PHILADELPHIA – As the mercury on your thermostat plunges to bone-chilling levels this winter, it’s important to remember that an unvented kerosene or gas space heater can kill you. According to a recently released Center for Disease Control fact sheet, 480 Americans die each year due to this silent, but deadly killer.

The name of this invisible, odorless gas is carbon monoxide. Most people know it as the poisonous smoke that comes out of a car’s exhaust pipe. Outdoors it’s diluted down to safe levels by the surrounding air. But close it up indoors and it can kill without mercy. Victims fall asleep and never wake up.

The insidious thing about carbon monoxide is that it replaces oxygen in the blood, so you can die from a high concentration in a short period of time. If you are lucky enough to realize what’s happening, find fresh air -- get outdoors if possible. If you lose consciousness, you must rely on the assistance of others. Medical personnel can increase the chance of survival with a hyperbaric chamber, which provides a 100 percent oxygen atmosphere under pressure. But it’s best simply to avoid the causes of carbon monoxide -- like a clogged chimney or unvented heater.

On Tuesday, January 18, a Philadelphia family of six was overcome by carbon monoxide gas in their home. A faulty heater caused CO to fill the air in every room. But this family was lucky. They survived.

The threat of carbon monoxide poisoning is most treacherous when the gas collects from otherwise safe sources gone bad, such as inefficient or malfunctioning fuel-burning appliances in poorly ventilated areas. As homes have gotten more airtight to improve energy efficiency, the threat of carbon monoxide poisoning has become a bigger problem.

Carbon monoxide is a byproduct caused by the incomplete combustion of many common fuels. It can come from furnaces, space heaters, ranges, ovens, stoves, fireplaces, water heaters, and clothes dryers.

At low levels, carbon monoxide causes fatigue, headaches, dizziness, nausea, increased chest pain in people with heart disease, confusion and disorientation. Because the chemical is colorless, odorless, and tasteless, and some of the symptoms are similar to common illnesses like a cold or the flu, the effects may not be recognized until it is too late.

It is surprisingly easy to protect yourself and your family from these invisible poisons. A good beginning is an inexpensive carbon monoxide detector -- home models retail for under $40 at any hardware or home improvement store.

If you detect carbon monoxide, or suffer chronically from any of the symptoms described above, get a qualified heating technician to inspect and clean your furnace, flue and fireplace.

Other prevention safeguards include:

< Get a regular furnace and chimney inspection.
< Make sure that all combustion appliances are properly installed, well-maintained, and checked yearly for safe operation.
< Do not use oven and gas ranges to heat your house.
< Use proper fuel in kerosene space heaters.
< Do not use unvented kerosene or gas space heaters except in well-ventilated rooms.
< Use a carbon monoxide detector which meets Underwriters Laboratories, Inc. Standards and has a long-term warranty, and is easily self-tested and reset to ensure proper functioning.