The New York state Health Commissioner recently urged residents impacted by Hurricane Sandy to be aware that carbon monoxide (CO) can result from the improper use of alternate power sources. Poisonings from CO are often caused by faulty furnaces, improperly operating portable generators, or using other fuel-burning devices indoors. With so many millions of people without power in the wake of the hurricane, many were using generators. Poisoning occurs when CO—an odorless, colorless, and tasteless gas—escapes from fuel-burning appliances and becomes trapped in enclosed spaces.
With the heating season upon us, it’s important we all take precautions and protect our homes against carbon monoxide poisoning. If heating sources are not properly vented, carbon monoxide can collect in your house and, often, you may not know it before it’s too late.
Carbon monoxide prevents the body from getting oxygen. It’s known as the silent killer. According to the State Health Department, the initial symptoms of CO poisoning can be mistaken for flu symptoms. One clue that it might be CO poisoning is symptoms occur or get worse shortly after turning on a fuel-burning device (e.g., generator, vehicle, tool). Another clue is more than one person in the home becomes sick at the same time (it usually takes several days for the flu to pass from person to person). Another clue is symptoms are brought on by being in a certain location and go away soon after leaving the area.
Age and general health may affect susceptibility to CO poisoning. Even low levels of CO can present a health risk to sensitive populations. These include the elderly, infants, the unborn, those with anemia, or those with heart or breathing problems.
If you suspect CO poisoning, leave the area to get fresh air. Leave doors open as you exit. Contact the fire department, and the gas company or heating contractor outside the home. Remember that you cannot smell CO and, as symptoms of CO poisoning increase, you may become confused and less capable of making decisions that could save your life.
In 2010, the state passed Amanda’s law, making carbon monoxide detectors a must-have for homeowners. This law passed after Amanda Hansen, 16, of West Seneca, NY, lost her life to carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning from a defective boiler when sleeping over at a friend’s house in January 2009.
CO alarms are available for purchase. If you have one, but it is older than six years old, it should be replaced. Unlike fire alarms, they expire. They are similar to smoke alarms and are designed to provide warning as CO levels in the air approach dangerous levels. The State Health Department recommends selecting a CO alarm which is certified by Underwriters Laboratories (UL), and is battery-powered or has a battery back-up. CO alarms should be placed according to manufacturer installation instructions. Test the CO alarm frequently, at least twice a year when clocks are adjusted for daylight savings time, and replace dead batteries when necessary.
New York state requires CO alarms in residences including single- and multiple-family homes, and in multiple dwellings such as hotels/motels, boarding houses, apartment buildings, fraternity and sorority buildings, and school dormitories. The requirements apply to structures that have an attached garage or have appliances, devices or systems that may emit CO.
A CO alarm is not a substitute for regular maintenance of fuel-burning appliances or equipment. For assistance with CO alarm placement, please contact your local fire department.
For more information about preventing carbon monoxide poisoning, go to http://www.health.ny.gov/environmental/indoors/air/carbon_monoxide_need_to_know.htm or contact your local fire department.
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