I know about fire safety, but how can I prevent carbon monoxide poisoning?
Approximately 200 people in the U.S. die and as many a 40,000 people seek medical attention every year for carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning, a life-threatening condition that results from exposure to the colorless, odorless carbon monoxide gas. Carbon monoxide is a product of burning organic fuels (propane gas, kerosene, wood, oil, gasoline, etc.) in fireplaces, stoves, propane heaters, furnaces and automobile or generator engines. The risk increases in winter and after power outages, as people try to warm their homes and discover (often too late) that they have a faulty furnace or inadequate exhaust for a fireplace, or when they improperly use a generator indoors.
Carbon monoxide blocks the transport of oxygen in the bloodstream, leading to oxygen deprivation for vital organs. Symptoms may include: headache, fatigue, lightheadedness, nausea, confusion, a rapid heartbeat and breathlessness. Symptoms can often be mistaken for a flu-like illness, so recognizing carbon monoxide poisoning is sometimes challenging. Prolonged exposure at high concentrations can result in death if not detected and treated promptly.
Prevention of carbon monoxide poisoning is easy, and it's the most important means of avoiding the consequences. All levels of your home should have a plug-in CO detector/alarm with battery backup. Detectors are available at almost any hardware or home supply store. A good way to remember to change your batteries is to do so when you set your clocks for daylight savings (this is when you should also change your smoke detector batteries). Every year, have any heating systems -- your furnace, hot water heater and gas/oil/coal-burning appliances -- as well as chimneys inspected by a trained technician to ensure adequate venting and exhaust. Don't use any fuel-burning devices -- propane or kerosene heaters, gasoline generators or gas stoves -- as a source of heat indoors, ever. Finally, it may be tempting to warm up you car while it's in the garage on cold mornings, but even with the garage door open, CO from the exhaust can seep into your home.
If you suspect that you or a family member may have been exposed or have symptoms from CO poisoning, go to your nearest hospital emergency department for evaluation and treatment with oxygen therapy as soon as possible.
— Mark Melrose, DO, is a board-certified emergency physician at Urgent Care Manhattan. E-mail him your questions at email@example.com.
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