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Increased education, awareness can prevent carbon monoxide poisoning

Winter Hazard Awareness Week highlights ‘silent killer’

November 09, 2012

For Immediate Release:

SAINT PAUL, MN – Each year about 50,000 people visit emergency rooms in the United States for CO poisoning, and more than 500 die each year from this silent, odorless, colorless gas.  As part of Winter Hazard Awareness Week (November 5-9), the Minnesota Department of Commerce warns Minnesotans of the dangers of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning and to take steps to avoid this “silent killer.”

“Carbon monoxide at high levels is a deadly poison and in lesser concentrations can cause or exacerbate illnesses,” said Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman. “It is paramount that the symptoms of CO poisoning are promptly recognized and addressed, and that people understand the source of CO and how to prevent CO poisoning.”

What is CO?

CO is a gas that you can’t see or feel. It can build up to dangerous concentrations indoors when fuel-burning devices—furnaces, water heaters, gas or kerosene space heaters, gas boilers, gas ranges and ovens, gas dryers, charcoal or gas grills, fireplaces and wood stoves, vehicles, and yard equipment—are not properly vented, operated or maintained. CO is most common in the winter months, when a heating system malfunctions in a home or when a car engine is left running in a garage.

How does CO harm people?

When CO is inhaled into the lungs it displaces the oxygen in the blood stream and affects all major organs and muscles. CO prevents oxygen from being used by the body, and the higher the concentration of CO in the air, the more rapid the oxygen displacement and the greater the health risk.

According to the Carbon Monoxide Safety Association, for healthy people, symptoms of CO poisoning (headaches, fatigue, shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, and confusion) may begin at CO levels of 36-99 parts per million (ppm). However, exposure to lower levels of CO (about 5-30 ppm) over extended periods of time may also contribute to illness. Exposure at higher levels and of longer duration will produce more severe symptoms. For example, at 800 ppm, nausea, dizziness and convulsions may occur, and death can occur within 2 hours at that level. At 1,600 ppm, death can occur within 1 hour.

Effects of CO vary from person to person, but people at increased risk of CO poisoning include pregnant women, the elderly, people with chronic health conditions, and people engaged in strenuous physical activity. CO poisoning mimics many common illnesses such as food poisoning, and it is frequently confused with a flu-like condition.

“CO poisoning is an under-tested and often misdiagnosed malady,” said Bob Dwyer, a consultant for the Carbon Monoxide Safety Association. Physicians can perform a simple, noninvasive carboxyhemoglobin percentage test on patients presenting with CO poison symptoms. The test measures the percent of CO in the hemoglobin of one’s blood. About 1 to 4 percent is considered normal for nonsmokers.

Preventing CO poisoning

The Minnesota Department of Health offers the following tips to help protect you and your family from CO poisoning:

  • Install UL-standard CO alarms; Minnesota law requires CO alarms in every single family and multifamily dwelling. 
  • Have a qualified technician inspect your fuel-burning appliances each year to ensure they are adequately vented and properly maintained. CO testing should be part of the inspection.
  • Do not idle cars in garages, either attached or unattached, for any length of time. In both cases, start your car and exit the garage immediately. Dangerously high levels of CO will accumulate even if the garage door is open.
  • Provide adequate ventilation when using a fireplace, wood stove or space heater.
  • Portable propane camping equipment and gas barbecues are approved for outdoor use only. Never use them inside cabins, tents, fish houses, or other enclosed shelters.
  • If your car is stuck in snow, make sure that the tail pipe is cleared before starting the engine.
  • During power outages, do not use gasoline engines or burn charcoal in enclosed spaces, including garages, even if the door is open.
  • Never use kitchen stoves, gasoline heaters, or other alternative methods to heat your home if running into financial hardship.  Please contact the Department of Commerce Energy Assistance Program to learn how you can apply for assistance to pay home heating costs. 
The Minnesota Department of Public Safety sponsors Winter Hazard Awareness Week and offers a fact sheet on preventing CO poisoning. For more information on CO poisoning, visit the Minnesota Department of Health and the Carbon Monoxide Safety Association websites.