A Cautionary Tale
Carbon Monoxide Dangers Rise in Winter
Regular furnace checks will reduce the possibility of soot build-up and inefficient fuel burning. Both contribute to carbon monoxide emissions
What Wilson didn’t realize was that once the gas fireplace was turned on, air inside the house was quickly drawn up out the chimney. At the same time, unvented furnace exhaust gases were also pulled throughout the house.
“Our carbon monoxide detector went off right away,” he recalls, adding that his 45-year-old home was constructed before building codes required installation of a fresh air return near the furnace.
Wilson is hardly alone.
As fall gives way to cold winter temperatures, most Pikes Peak region residents will seal drafty cracks, turn up the heat and stoke the fireplace. But if appliances aren’t kept up properly or furnace filters aren’t changed, soot may accumulate and resulting carbon monoxide gases may build up, endangering those inside.
In addition, if cars are warmed up in the garage on chilly mornings, engines may start burning poorly if they’re not vented properly.
Because of its quiet, unexpected presence, CO poisoning symptoms are often overlooked. Fatalities are rare, but carbon monoxide poisoning can lead to headaches, dizziness, brain damage, seizures and heart attacks. Pets often become lethargic and oxygen-deprived plants may lose their leaves.
CO poisoning is believed to be responsible for more than half of the poisoning deaths worldwide. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta report that more than 2,500 Americans die each year from carbon monoxide damage. As many as 20,000 more seek medical attention annually. A 2008 CDC study revealed that CO-related fatalities peak during January.
Colorado Springs Utilities Operations Superintendent Kevin Perigo reports his department fielded 1,850 calls related to carbon monoxide in 2011 and another 4,893 for gas leaks.
“They’re pretty much about the same thing,” he explains, adding that dysfunctional appliances are often at fault.
His team also systematically checks all cars, generators or barbeque grills that are used or started in the garage as well as furnaces, fireplaces, meters and pipes.
Fortunately community organizations have stepped up to help avert this potential killer.
Energy Resource Center Executive Director Howard Brooks says the ERC has checked as many as 1,300 homes in a single year. With a fleet of 20 vehicles and a staff of just 25, it serves low income and elderly residents of El Paso, Teller, Douglas, Fremont and Elbert counties. Its free energy efficiency and safety outreach programs are in high demand. The nonprofit has also partnered with the County Health Department and the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments to form a CO Task Force to educate the public and prevent death and disease from CO poisoning.
“We currently have 300 families on a waiting list,” he says, adding that while ERC receives funding from the Colorado Energy Office, the nonprofit has had to find additional income streams.
One initiative includes offering paid energy audits to area homeowners. All resulting insulation, weatherization, furnace repair and appliance servicing is handled by private companies.
“One-hundred percent of the profits from our staff’s audits which average about $350 per household go to help poor families,” Brooks says, pointing out that the audits often detect CO. One in five houses has a health or safety issue that includes CO or gas leaks.
Another community program is Colorado Springs Utilities’ HEAP or “Home Energy Assistance Program” which, in partnership with the ERC, pays for energy efficiency upgrades to homes and addresses safety issues.
“As far as carbon monoxide poisoning, we hear from all walks of life. It can happen to anyone,” admits CSU program manager Deborah Mathis.
To qualify for free ERC or HEAP assistance, a family of four qualifies by making no more than twice the poverty level income.
“In this economy we’ve definitely had a lot more people qualify than in 2006 or 2007,” she says.