Malfunctioning gas, oil and kerosene heaters can release carbon monoxide gas (CO), which presents a serious health threat. CO is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, nonirritating gas. These properties make CO especially dangerous because it cannot be detected without special testing of the air quality.
When inhaled, CO reduces the amount of oxygen the blood can carry and the amount of oxygen delivered to all vital organs. The organs at greatest risk of injury are those with the highest requirements for oxygen — the heart and the brain.
If CO is detected, you should leave the area of exposure immediately and go to the emergency department. Call the Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222 for further instruction. The gas company, oil company or local health authority can provide help in identifying and removing sources of CO contamination.
Sources of carbon monoxide
Malfunctioning gas, oil or kerosene heaters
Occasionally, paint strippers containing methylene chloride
Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning
Symptoms of a mild exposure to CO include headache, shortness of breath during mild exertion and fatigue. Continued exposure to CO may result in nausea, vomiting, visual disturbances and difficulty concentrating.
Prolonged exposure and lack of medical treatment may lead to serious and long-term effects and may even be life-threatening. The very young and the very old are most sensitive to the effects of CO.
Some symptoms of CO poisoning, such as headache, dizziness, nausea and fatigue, can be confused with the common flu. However, flu is passed from one family member to another, and usually does not affect everyone in the family at the same time. Symptoms of the flu do not improve after leaving the house; and are usually relieved with proper medication.
CO poisoning, on the other hand, will simultaneously produce symptoms in the entire family, including the family pets. Symptoms may improve upon leaving the area of exposure; and are not relieved with medication.
Preventing carbon monoxide poisoning
Follow these recommendations to help prevent carbon monoxide poisoning:
- Install a battery-operated or battery back-up CO alarm in the home and replace the batteries every year.
- Place generators as far from homes as possible (minimum of 25 feet), but also at a safe distance from any nearby dwellings.
- Never use a generator, grill, camp stove, or other gasoline or charcoal-burning device inside a home, basement, garage, or outside near an open window.
- Never heat homes with a gas oven or by burning charcoal.
- Ensure that fuel-burning space heaters are properly vented.
- Maintain your heating system, water heater, and any gas, oil, or coal burning appliances with annual service appointments with a qualified technician.
- Do not use portable flameless chemical heaters indoors. These types of heaters burn gas and can cause CO to build up inside your home.
- Leave the building and dial 911 if a CO alarm sounds, if CO poisoning is suspected, or if any person begins to feel dizzy, light-headed or nauseous.
- After a major snowstorm, your car's exhaust pipe may be blocked by snow, causing the gas to back up into the car. To protect yourself and your passengers from carbon monoxide poisoning, avoid being in the car with the engine running.
For suspected cases of CO poisoning and other exposures, call your regional poison center at 1-800-222-1222.