These sources, such as kerosene space heaters, wood stoves, fireplaces, gas stoves and generators, produce carbon monoxide. If this gas is released inside a room or small unventilated space, it can build to a dangerously high level. S. Rutherfoord Rose, Pharm.D., director of the Virginia Poison Center, answered questions about the potential dangers involved.
What is carbon monoxide?
Carbon monoxide is a poisonous gas that has no smell, taste or color. It can cause sudden illness or death. Carbon monoxide is sometimes called the “silent killer” because its early signs are very easy to miss.
Where is carbon monoxide found?
Every fuel-burning device can make carbon monoxide gas. They do this mostly when they are not working properly or when the fumes from the devices are not ventilated well.
Why is it harmful?
Carbon monoxide competes with oxygen in the body and reduces oxygen delivery to tissues.
What are the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning?
Mild symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning resemble the flu or a viral illness. Early signs can include headache, dizziness, nausea, weakness and accelerated heartbeat. If multiple family members are ill, the victims may think they all have the same viral illness or even food poisoning. Serious signs include vomiting, confusion, loss of consciousness, coma and heart attack. Pregnant women, small children and people with heart disease can be affected by carbon monoxide much more seriously than other healthy adults.
Why is there a spike in carbon monoxide poisonings during severe weather with power outages?
The burning of carbon-based fuel in devices such as charcoal grills, gas grills, natural gas furnaces and water heaters and gasoline and diesel engines generates carbon monoxide. These devices must be adequately ventilated while in use. Adequate ventilation may not occur if gas-powered generators, etc., are run indoors, even in basements or garages.
How can carbon monoxide poisonings be prevented?
Keep gas-powered appliances and engines in proper working condition and keep them properly ventilated. Do not use charcoal grills, gas grills or generators indoors, including in basements or garages. Make sure kerosene space heaters are functioning and properly ventilated. Also, install at least one carbon monoxide alarm in your home. The best places to put these alarms are near sleeping areas and close to furnaces.
What should a person do if they fear they may have been exposed to carbon monoxide?
Move quickly to fresh air. Safely cut off any gas-powered engine or appliance. Safely open windows and ventilate rooms with fresh air, using fans if possible. Call the Virginia Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222. The experts at the poison center will tell you what to do next. Sometimes, but not always, it is necessary to go to the hospital for oxygen treatment.