Breath easy with carbon monoxide safety

Posted: Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Known as the silent killer, carbon monoxide is odorless, invisible and can kill a person in minutes, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Central Emergency Services Fire Marshal Gary Hale agrees.

"Carbon monoxide adheres to the blood 200 times faster than oxygen," he said, accelerating the speed of its killing ability.

One of the most common sources of carbon monoxide poisoning in homes, according to Hale, is gasoline or diesel-powered engines.

Using a gasoline-powered generator in the home during common winter power interruptions can lead to lethal CO emissions entering the living area of the home.

Long warmups of vehicles in attached garages also can lead to problems.

"One thing people don't realize is that carbon monoxide has the same weight as air so it doesn't go up to the garage ceiling or settle to the floor like some other gases," Hale said.

"And it takes something to get it moving. Something like a person walking.

"After you let the car idle in the garage and then walk into the attached living area, the carbon monoxide will actually follow you," he said.

According to the EPA Web site, CO is produced whenever any fuel such as gas, oil, kerosene, wood or charcoal is burned.

Appliances that burn the fuel properly cause little buildup of CO, but appliances that are not working properly or are used incorrectly can result in dangerous levels of the gas.

"If you get a headache when you enter an area and then it goes away when you leave and get into fresh air, chances are there is a carbon monoxide problem," Hale said.

He recommends using a Night Hawk, digital read-out CO monitor.

"Whatever kind you buy, be sure it's UL (Underwriters Laboratory) approved," he said.

When the CO alarm goes off, people should first check to see if anyone in the home has flu-like symptoms, usually accompanied by a headache.

Get fresh air immediately, advises the EPA.

Open doors and windows and turn off any combustion appliances. Then, get out of the house.

Hale said central Kenai Peninsula fire departments will come to check CO levels if residents suspect a problem.

"If the alarm goes off, and people can't find a problem, we will come out and check the levels to see if the monitor is working properly," he said.

"We might get 50 to 100 calls over the winter season. About half the time, we do find detectable levels of carbon monoxide," he said.

Because of CO's similar molecular weight to air, CO monitors can be placed almost anywhere near the floor, 18 inches above the floor or at the ceiling and carbon monoxide will be detected.

Hale recommends having a plug-in type monitor that also works on battery power in the event of a power failure.

Some cautions offered by the EPA include:

Don't idle the car in the garage. Fumes can build up quickly.

Don't use a gas oven to heat the home, even for a short time.

Don't use a charcoal grill indoors, even in the fireplace.

Don't sleep in any room with an unvented gasoline or kerosene space heater.

Don't use gasoline powered engines in enclosed spaces.

Don't ignore symptoms, particularly if more than one person is feeling them. You could lose consciousness and die if you do nothing.

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