The Deadly Silent Threat

If there was something entering your home that could harm you, you would take action. If you knew there was something causing harm to you and your family, you would put a stop to it. But what if something was coming into your home, place of work, or other location and harming your family and you didn’t know? You can’t protect yourself or your loved ones from things are you aren’t aware of. A real, deadly and quiet threat to you and your family is carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide, or CO, is a colorless, tasteless, odorless gas produced anytime a fossil fuel is burned; from any form of incomplete combustion. This gas is harmful, and potentially deadly, causing carbon monoxide poisoning. This can occur in those around the gas in large volumes over a short period of time or even small volumes over a long time period. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, examples of items producing CO are: Furnaces or boilers, gas stoves and ovens, fireplaces (both gas and wood burning), water heaters, clothes dryers, wood stoves, power generators, motor vehicles, power tools and lawn equipment and tobacco smoke.

Carbon monoxide, once in your blood stream, takes the place of oxygen on your red blood cells. This makes it difficult for your body to carry needed oxygen to all the areas of the brain and other organs where it’s needed. What does it look like when you are experiencing CO poisoning? This is another contributing factor to the difficulty in detecting an issue, as many of the symptoms are common with other conditions. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), “Besides tightness across the chest, initial symptoms of CO poisoning may include: Headache, fatigue, dizziness, drowsiness or nausea. Sudden chest pain may occur in people with angina. During prolonged or high exposures, symptoms may worsen and include vomiting, confusion and collapse in addition to loss of consciousness and muscle weakness.” Symptoms will vary from person to person. Those most at risk are small children, elderly and those with other health issues. Pets in the home are also at risk. With these common indicators and a lack of a smell, taste or a visual cue, many may not realize what’s happening before it is too late.

The CDC is clear about CO poisoning: Can’t be seen, can’t be smelled, can’t be heard and can be stopped. CO poisoning can be prevented by having a CO monitor in place in your home and other areas were combustible materials and equipment are running. Make sure this monitor has a battery back-up and, preferably, a digital readout. The CDC also recommends having any gas, oil or coal burning appliances serviced by a qualified technician every year including that venting is in good repair and any issues repaired properly. Never burn charcoal indoors. Using a portable gas camp stove indoors can cause CO to build up inside your home, cabin or camper. Also, never use a generator inside your home, basement or garage or less than 20 feet from any window, door or vent. Make sure to keep your chimney clean and checked each year, to prevent gases from entering the home. Cars are also a source of CO. Be sure to check your exhaust system for any leaks and do not run your car in the garage, even with the garage door up or open. Opening the door does not provide enough ventilation.

If the monitor in your home alarms, or if you believe yourself or someone has CO poisoning, get to open, fresh air as soon as possible. Then quickly call 911. The fire department will need to enter the space to determine where the gas is coming from. This should be done by trained professionals with the proper protection and equipment. Someone suspected of CO poisoning will be put on a regimen of 100% pure oxygen and monitored for further follow-up. With CO poisoning, awareness, education and monitoring are all needed to help keep your family safe.

written by Jessica O. Wall, MPH
Assistant Director
Yadkin County Human Services Agency
Medical Clinic and WIC