Courier Staff Writer
The winter months are traditionally the most dangerous time for carbon monoxide poisoning. The silent threat increases when home owners turn on their furnaces and run leaking appliances in enclosed spaces.
Carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning occurs after excessive inhalation of carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide is a toxic gas, but being colorless, odorless and tasteless, it is very difficult for people to detect.
Symptoms of mild CO poisoning include lightheadedness, confusion, headaches, vertigo and flu-like effects. On a larger scale, prolonged exposure can lead to toxicity of the central nervous system, heart issues and even death.
Ottumwa Fire Chief Tony Miller says the stealth of CO poisoning is why it can be so deadly.
“The problem really is that you don’t know that you’re being poisoned,” he explained. “You’ll have flu-like symptoms, especially drowsiness, and it will put you into a deeper sleep. That’s the danger.”
In addition to appliances, other sources of carbon monoxide include cigarette smoke, house fires, faulty furnaces, heaters, wood-burning stoves, internal combustion vehicle exhaust, electrical generators, propane-fueled equipment such as portable stoves and gasoline-powered tools. Exposure becomes even more extreme when equipment is used in buildings or semi-enclosed spaces.
During the winter months, residents will close up their home against the cold, Miller said, preventing the toxic vapors from escaping to the outside. Any CO leak will be trapped inside instead of combining with fresh air or finding some other way to leave the building safely.
Miller says there are two simple, inexpensive solutions to CO poisoning. Because this poisoning can affect anyone who has a gas appliance, water heater or furnace, it’s especially important to make sure they’re all in good working order.
“Have a professional come take a look and make sure they’re working properly. A cracked heat exchange leads to leaks. If you don’t get them checked out, you’ll have problems,” he said.
The fire department has always recommended smoke detectors, and CO monitors are also a great preventative measure. They have an alarm similar to smoke detectors but will make a different sound to alert residents to excessive levels of CO. For $20-$50, a combination smoke detector and CO monitor can be the first line of defense against CO poisoning.
“We don’t see it a lot in Ottumwa, but nationwide it’s an issue. You’ll read about whole families who died of carbon monoxide poisoning because they didn’t have detectors,” Miller said. “Sometimes cost is an issue, but it’s well worth it.”
The Ottumwa Fire Department will check on 40-50 CO monitor alarms each year, Miller says. Just like they’ll check on the situation when a smoke detector goes off, they will also perform CO checks.
“We have a detector to check for carbon monoxide, and if it’s higher than a certain level, we’ll call the gas company,” Miller said. “We’re happy to come out and check, and we’ll do what we can. Better safe than sorry.”