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The Hidden Danger Among Us

As arctic air settles in, furnaces are firing up and homes are closed tight. Coming in from the cold brings comfort and security, yet a hidden danger lurks when and where we least expect it.  Sneaking up without warning, you cannot see, hear, taste, or smell this silent killer, as it often strikes while people sleep, overcoming its victims within minutes before they are aware it is in their home. 

The invisible perpetrator is Carbon monoxide (CO) and it takes the lives of more than 500 Americans each year and sends nearly 40,000 to the hospital. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), carbon monoxide poisoning is a danger to people throughout the world and is a leading cause of unintentional poisoning deaths in the United States. Young children, elderly, immune compromised, and household pets are typically the first affected, but CO does not discriminate by age or socio-economics.

“We are all vulnerable to the hazards associated with inhaling fossil fuel combustion gases,” says Robert “Bob” P. Dwyer, CSME, director of training, Carbon Monoxide Safety Association, “We have all been poisoned to some extent by carbon monoxide.”

The Sources

Produced by the incomplete oxidation during combustion of various fuels, the culprits are everyday products such as cooking and heating systems: gas or kerosene heaters, boilers, furnaces, ranges, water heaters, fireplaces, and lanterns. Equipment like portable generators, cars, lawn mowers, and power washers are CO producers, as well as vehicle exhaust emitted from attached garages, nearby roads, or parking areas. 

When working properly, the amount of CO released by these products is harmless. But if they are unmaintained or malfunction, CO emissions can build to levels that are lethal.

The Symptoms

The biological process of CO poisoning entails the toxic gas entering the bloodstream and replacing the oxygen molecules found on the critical blood component hemoglobin, depriving the heart and brain of the oxygen necessary to function. The impacts vary from person to person depending on the concentration of exposure, but the following are typical indicators:

• Mild exposure – Flu-like symptoms including slight headache, nausea, vomiting and fatigue

• Medium exposure – Severe throbbing headache, drowsiness, confusion, impaired vision, and fast heart rate

• Extreme exposure – Unconsciousness, convulsions, cardiorespiratory failure and death

CO poisoning is difficult to diagnose because the symptoms mimic other illnesses, sometimes prompting victims to stay in bed in the same toxic environment that originally caused the problem.

 “A missing piece of the puzzle is that medical professionals are not always equipped to detect CO poisoning,” explains Colorado Springs Attorney, Kenneth Shakeshaft, who has experienced many cases involving CO injury. “Symptoms are similar to flu, but without fever, so it is often misdiagnosed.” 

One of the most disturbing aspects of CO poisoning is the neurological damage, he explains. Long-term effects can include memory loss, impaired motor skills or heart and lung problems that can worsen weeks after exposure. 

Hundreds of deaths occur from dangerous practices such as warming up an automobile in an attached-garage. Many cases involve infants left to sleep in a running car with the heater on; even if the garage door is open, CO levels can permanently damage the brain, heart, and lungs.  

Risks Away from Home

When we stay in a hotel or rental we assume safety is addressed, but that is not always the case. Bob Dwyer, director of training for the Carbon Monoxide Safety Association, recommends bringing a portable CO detector 

to safeguard from this invisible danger when travelling.

One example occurred after Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday, November 27th, 2008. The Lofgren family (Parker, age 39, Caroline age 42, Owen, age 10, and Sophie, age 8) died from carbon monoxide poisoning in an Aspen rental home that had a faulty pipe in the heating and snow melt system. They had won their stay in a charity auction raising money for the children’s school. 

This tragic loss of life prompted The Lofgren and Johnson Families Carbon Monoxide Safety Act which was signed into law by Colorado Governor Bill Ritter in February, 2009, and requires that after July 1, 2009, all dwellings for sale with a fuel-fired appliance, fireplace or attached garage, or rental dwellings that change tenancy, must have CO detectors installed within 15 feet of any room used for sleeping purposes. 

CO Detectors

According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), most people will not experience symptoms from exposure to CO levels up to 70 parts per million (ppm). Therefore, audible warnings on most brands begin at 70 ppm with no alert for the first 60 to 139 minutes, which may be too late for vulnerable people like heart patients. 

More high-end CO monitors like the brand CO-Experts, have created a small, portable detector that measures chronic low level CO that has a digital and audible warning beginning as low as 10 ppm. 

Regardless of which brand you choose, the CPSC recommends the detector conforms to Underwriters Laboratories Standard (UL) 2034 or is American Gas Association certified. It is important to test systems once per month and replace batteries every 3 to 4 years. 

Prevention

While installing a CO detector is important, they can create a false sense of security,” says Shakeshaft. “The best line of defense is an annual inspection of furnace systems and fuel burning appliances by a qualified technician.”

One local organization has been a primary catalyst in CO education and saving lives. For the third year, The Energy Resource Center (ERC), winner of the Regional Business Alliance’s “2014 Outstanding Nonprofit’ award, has activated its Carbon Monoxide Task Force with the goal of increasing awareness and early detection of the poisonous gas. 

“It’s important to the work of ERC that we alert all socio-economic levels in our community to the dangers of Carbon Monoxide,” says Susan Parker, communications director for the ERC. 

Each winter, the nationally recognized task force, comprised of several partnering organizations, helps bring CO detectors into hundreds of Pikes Peak area homes by providing free, high-end detectors to income-qualified residents. In addition, the ERC is a resource for anyone who wants to learn about energy efficiency and safety in their home. 

While CO poisoning happens throughout the year, incidents increase during cold weather when homeowners use more fuel-burning appliances. By practicing safety measures, your family has a much better chance of not becoming a victim of this silent killer.