ESSAY- Carbon monoxide: What you don't know can hurt you

The Hook's April 9th cover story told a harrowing CO tale.

You can't see it or smell it. It doesn't irritate your skin or nose. If you do feel sick before you pass out from carbon monoxide poisoning, you probably think it's the flu. Tempted to sleep it off, you may not wake up again.

New research reveals that CO is even more harmful than was once thought. The good news is that a new generation of CO detectors can keep you and your loved ones safer.

Once it was believed that children were the most likely victims of CO poisoning, but new research at Brigham Young University by Dr. Ramona Hopkins, a specialist in the neurosciences, shows that some individuals are simply more susceptible than others, regardless of age.

"It's like playing Russian roulette with your life," says Dr. Hopkins, a staunch believer in preventive medicine through the use of CO detectors.

Cut your losses

According to the Carbon Monoxide Health and Safety Association, the cost of CO poisoning in the U.S. is $8.8 billion a year in medical care, lost productivity, and lost wages. The Association says this sum could be cut by 93 percent if every home had two CO alarms.

Her most alarming finding is that about one-fourth of CO survivors are left with some sort of permanent damage, such as a cognitive disorder, loss of memory or personality changes. With or without the use of oxygen or hyperbaric oxygen therapy, recovery from CO poisoning may not be as complete as was once believed.

Entering the body, CO attaches to hemoglobin in the blood and replaces life-giving oxygen. It's an equal opportunity killer but is especially deadly to people who have pre-existing lung or circulatory problems. According to the Centers for Disease Control, CO is the leading cause of accidental poisoning deaths in American homes and, because of increasing use of portable generators during power outages, deaths have doubled in recent years.

What you already know

It's not news that fuel-burning appliances in the home need to be vented or that vents must be checked regularly to make sure they are not plugged by an animal nest or a build-up or dust and soot. We know we shouldn't run the car in a garage or carport, use charcoal or the kitchen gas stove to heat the house, or block flues used by the furnace, gas water heater or gas dryer. (One family got a CO overdose when their rooftop Christmas decorations blocked a flue.)

If you use a kerosene heater, you read and follows directions scrupulously. You run generators in the open air. You are also aware that smoke alarms can't detect CO. Get a dedicated CO detector or a smoke detector with a CO sensor.

What you may not know

Charcoal should not be used under any cover, not even on an open porch or in a fireplace. Don't use the charcoal grill near an open door or window where vapors can below into the house, the RV or the cabin of your boat. CO concentrations can pool in low areas. Children have been poisoned while swimming next to a boat where a generator was spewing exhaust across the water surface; tenters have been affected when camped in a depression where a heater or generator run on a windless night.

Did you know that, at high concentrations, CO can be fatal in a matter of minutes? You may not get a warning; and, if you do, you may not recognize the signs. Many people also are not aware that they need a CO detector on every level in the home; ideally you'll have one in every bedroom. If an alarm goes off, get everyone into fresh air at once.

The new CO detectors

New in the marketplace are detectors that employ electro-chemical technology that's less prone to false alarms caused by temperature or humidity changes or from vapors given off by common household cleaners. In addition to audible or visual alarms for the hearing or sight impaired there are now units that speak. A voice command tells you what the danger is, where it is and what to do, such as "Get out!"

Lighted CO detectors now allow you to see the reading in the dark. Digital displays update every 15 seconds; so if you wake up queasy or achy, a quick glance tells you if CO could be the culprit.

An especially useful new feature records the maximum CO level detected. No matter what the CO level is later, it tells rescue personnel the maximum exposure victims were subjected to. Like smoke alarms and other sensors, CO detectors can also report a reading to a company that will phone you or send help when they see dangerous levels in your home.

When buying a new unit, look for the UL certification both for the unit and for its stated accuracy level.

As long as we burn fuels, CO will be a danger, but thanks to improved detection technology your family can be protected for as little as $20.


Janet Groene is an award-winning writer, columnist and author of more than 25 books, including the Open Road Travel Guides' Caribbean edition.