Preventing deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning

    Safety officials say this is the season for extra vigilance about carbon monoxide risks.

    Safety officials say this is the season for extra vigilance about carbon monoxide risks.

    (Photo: / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


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    As temperatures drop, people seal up their homes for winter and use fuel-burning appliances that give off carbon monoxide. That’s fine if your furnace or stove is properly ventilated to allow the gas to flow outside. But in today’s energy-efficient homes, the gas from a faulty appliance can get trapped in the house.

    Paul Reichenbach is with the Office of the Pennsylvania State Fire Commissioner. He says carbon monoxide poisoning is often called the Great Imitator.

    Reichenbach: Most folks don’t recognize that they are being affected by carbon monoxide. They may become quite ill with symptoms that mimic the flu. Headache, nausea, upset stomach, aches and pains, they become lethargic.

    The gas is colorless, tasteless and odorless. Across the country, about 500 people die each year from carbon monoxide poisoning. In the latest report from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Pennsylvania led the nation with 160 accidental deaths over a six-year period.

    Safety officials warn that some of the things we do to stay warm are just too risky.

    They say: Don’t warm up the car in the garage, even if the door is open. And, never use the stove to heat your home.

    Dr. Edward Krenzelok is director of the Pittsburgh Poison Center. He says carbon monoxide suffocates by replacing oxygen in the body, and the gas can damage the brain and nerves.

    Krenzelok: The effects of carbon monoxide poisoning are very much like that of the flu or food poisoning. So if you are feeling weak and nauseous and a headache, it could be food poisoning, it could be the flu, or it could be carbon monoxide poisoning.

    Pennsylvania state Representative Tim Soloby from Washington County is chief of his local volunteer fire department. This session, he sponsored a bill to require carbon monoxide alarms in every home.

    We’ve been able to make you know the importance of smoke detectors, we also now want to make known the importance of carbon monoxide detectors. Some people that are negative to this look at it as: There’s the state forcing you to do some kind of mandate. Well, when things go wrong, the first thing they want to do is say: Why didn’t government do something to help us know how to do this a little bit better?”

    Every year as many as 20,000 people across the country are sick enough to visit an emergency room because of carbon monoxide exposure.

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