You don’t need to memorize the Periodic Table to know the difference between O, CO and CO2. We interact with oxygen (O) and carbon dioxide (CO2) with every breath we take, but we spend very little time worrying about carbon monoxide (CO). However, during winter months, we should be more aware than ever of the risks of carbon monoxide and carbon monoxide poisoning. As you turn on your heaters, light fires in the fireplace and turn on your oven, you could be slowly filling your room with the odorless, colorless gas.
Because we don’t all pass our chemistry classes with flying colors, we found someone who did. Bryan Kuhn, PharmD, is a poison education specialist at Banner Poison and Drug Information Center. He shared five important tips and warnings to help you prevent dangerous carbon monoxide poisonings in your home this year.
1. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 400 people die each year from non-fire related carbon monoxide poisonings in the U.S.
In addition, approximately 50,000 people in the U.S. visit the emergency department each year due to accidentally CO poisoning. Poorly maintained gas appliances are the most common cause for CO poisonings. Never use your oven as a heater in cold seasons and make sure that your appliances are regularly maintained by professionals.
2. Smoke detectors and CO monitors are not the same thing.
Carbon monoxide detectors should be installed in areas where people sleep or spend the most time during the day. Be sure to check the batteries regularly.
3. Never leave a car engine running in a garage, even with doors open.
Cars, generators and other motors fill the spaces they occupy with carbon monoxide. When in use, place them at least 20 feet from your house.
4. Carbon monoxide is odorless.
Your local utilities company adds a faint scent to the gas used in your home. But in cases where CO occurs naturally, like from a poorly ventilated wood stove, you will not know you are being poisoned until symptoms appear. Even if a flame is burning, you can still be poisoned. Kuhn explained that poisonings are typically a result of an inefficient burn, not a gas leak with no flame.
5. The first signs include nausea, extreme headache and dizziness.
Because CO is odorless and colorless, symptoms may be your only telltale sign. If you begin to feel symptoms, go outside immediately and call for help.
How serious are your symptoms?
If you believe you are experiencing mild CO poisoning, get to a safe, well-ventilated space and call the Banner Poison and Drug Information Center. You may be instructed to call 911 or given other directions to monitor your condition. Mild symptoms include:
If you or someone you are with is experiencing serious symptoms, call 911 immediately and get to a safe, well-ventilated space. Serious symptoms include:
- Passing out
- Severe headache
- Chest pain
- If symptoms persist for a long time
- If you are experiencing mild symptoms and are pregnant
Learn more about how to keep your home safe from carbon monoxide poisonings and see what other poisonous household items could be putting your family at risk.