Carbon monoxide is a silent killer

It is not uncommon to hear about carbon monoxide poisoning on houseboats at recreation lakes. At this time of year, wood-burning fireplaces, un-vented space heaters or gas stoves are significant sources of CO gas and indoor air pollution. Problems also arise when natural gas water heaters or wood-burning fireplaces don't have enough air to function properly.

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, as many as 15,000 people seek treatment each year for carbon monoxide poisoning. Low levels of CO gas can trigger mild headaches and more concentrated levels of CO gas can lead to a progression of symptoms including loss of consciousness and death.

Those at greatest risk for CO poisoning - the elderly, children, anyone with heart disease or lung conditions such as asthma or emphysema - may be the first to show signs of illness, but high levels of this odorless, colorless gas can be lethal to anyone.

Carbon monoxide gas, which can build up to create unhealthy indoor air quality, has many common residential sources:

• Gas or kerosene

space heaters

• Fireplaces

• Gas cooking stoves

• Water heaters

• Wood stoves

• Camp stoves

• Charcoal grills

• Power generators

• Motor vehicles

• Lawn mowers and other power tools with internal combustion engines

• Furnaces or boilers

Often, the person who spends the most time in the home can be greatly affected by unhealthy levels of CO gas. Levels that are greater than the outdoor levels suggest a problem.

Exposure to carbon monoxide gas on a continual basis can lead to flu-like symptoms such as severe headaches, dizziness, fatigue and nausea. However, CO gas would not cause body ache, low-grade fever or swollen lymph nodes. Do the symptoms get worse shortly after using a fuel-burning device? Do symptoms get better when you are not at home? Persons "poisoned" by CO gas can develop confusion or irritability, impaired judgment or memory and loss of coordination.

Don't ignore symptoms, it is important to get fresh air immediately to counteract CO gas buildup that seems to be affecting health. Emergency room physicians can diagnose CO poisoning with a blood test that occurs soon after the exposure.

How to Detect the Problem

For personal safety, install a Underwriters Laboratory (UL) certified CO alarm. Look for a digital alarm that plugs into a wall outlet. These give more accurate readings than the ceiling mount alarms that look like smoke detectors. Also, hire a trained professional to make sure your fuel-burning appliances or devices are properly operating and venting. The following signs can point to a CO gas hazard:

• Absence of an upward draft in your chimney;

• Excess moisture on interior side of windows, walls and other cold surfaces;

• Orange or yellow flames (should be blue) in furnaces;

• Small amounts of water leaking from the base of the chimney, vent or flue pipe;

• Rust on flue pipes or other pipe connections, including rust on the vent pipe that is visible from the outside;

• Streaks of soot or fallen soot in the fireplace or other fuel-burning appliances.

To prevent CO poisoning:

• Never use a charcoal grill indoors

• Never sleep in any room heated with an un-vented gas or kerosene space heater

• Never use a gas oven to heat the home during a power outage

• Never idle a car inside an attached garage, even if the garage door is open.