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Protect your family from carbon monoxide poisoning

Often called the "silent killer" because of its odorless, tasteless, and colorless nature, carbon monoxide remains the leading cause of accidental poisonings in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Each year, carbon monoxide poisoning claims nearly 500 lives and causes more than 15,000 visits to hospital emergency departments.

Carbon monoxide can be found in combustion fumes, such as those produced by cars and trucks, small gasoline engines, stoves, lanterns, coal- and wood-burning stoves, and gas ranges and heating systems. Carbon monoxide from these sources can build up in enclosed or semi-enclosed spaces, poisoning people and animals who breathe it.

Portable electric generators are a source of carbon monoxide poisoning if used improperly. Many people rely on these units during extended power outages, but special care must be used. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, for example, the misuse of generators caused five deaths and dozens of cases of carbon monoxide poisoning.

The most common symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are headaches, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, chest pain, and confusion. High levels of carbon monoxide inhalation can lead to loss of consciousness and death. Unless suspected, poisoning can be difficult to diagnose because the symptoms mimic other illnesses like the flu.

To prevent carbon monoxide poisoning in your home, follow these tips:

  • Have your fuel-burning appliances — including oil and gas furnaces, gas water heaters, gas ranges and ovens, gas dryers, gas or kerosene space heaters, fireplaces, and wood stoves — inspected by a trained professional at the beginning of every heating season. Make certain that flues and chimneys are connected, in good condition, and not blocked.
  • Choose appliances that vent fumes outside whenever possible, have them properly installed, and maintain them according to manufacturers’ instructions.
  • Read and follow all instructions that accompany any fuel-burning device. If you cannot avoid using an unvented gas or kerosene space heater, carefully follow the cautions that come with the device. Use the proper fuel and keep doors to the rest of the house open. Crack a window to ensure enough air for ventilation and proper fuel-burning.
  • Do not idle your car in a closed garage. Fumes can build up very quickly.
  • Never use a gas oven to heat your home, even for a short time.
  • Never use a charcoal grill indoors or charcoal briquettes in a fireplace.
  • Do not sleep in any room with an unvented gas or kerosene space heater.
  • Do not use any gasoline-powered engines (mowers, weed trimmers, snow blowers, chainsaws, small engines, or generators) in enclosed spaces.
  • Install a battery-operated carbon monoxide detector in your home and check or replace the battery when you change the time on your clocks each spring and fall.
  • Look for Underwriters’ Laboratory (UL) certification on any detector you purchase.

If a carbon monoxide detector in your house goes off, check to see if anyone in the house is experiencing symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning. If so, get them out of the house immediately and tell your doctor you suspect poisoning from the gas. Regardless of whether anyone in the home has symptoms, ventilate the house, turn off all potential sources of carbon monoxide, and have a qualified technician check your gas appliances.


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