Carbon Monoxide: ‘The Silent Killer’

LIVING

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All Calnis Dowlearn wanted to do was stay warm.

All she did was turn on her heater.

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Patti Sheire displays a potential killer. Faulty heaters can cause death by starting fires or, if they are fuel-burning models, by producing carbon monoxide.

That’s what led to the death of the 62-year-old Star Valley resident and former Roundup columnist almost two weeks ago.

That’s how her death became one of more than 500 attributed each year in the United States to accidental carbon monoxide poisoning associated with fuel-burning home heating equipment.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, carbon monoxide poisoning is called “The Silent Killer” for good reason. Produced by the incomplete combustion of solid, liquid and gaseous fuels caused by faulty or misadjusted heating equipment, carbon monoxide is colorless, odorless and tasteless.

Because symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning headache, fatigue, dizziness, nausea and diarrhea are easily mistaken for flu symptoms, it can poison or kill its victims before anyone is aware of its presence.

That was the case in Dowlearn’s death. On the evening of Wednesday, Oct. 30, she was experiencing severe flu-like symptoms and summoned paramedics to her mobile home in the Houston Creek RV Park. The paramedics arrived, checked Dowlearn out, deemed her ill but safe, and left.

The following Friday morning, she was found dead.

Safe and sane

Any death is tragic. But magnifying the Dowlearn tragedy is that it could have been so easily prevented, said Dave Pote, Gila County’s environmental health director.

“Carbon monoxide isn’t just dangerous, it’s deadly because it is so completely undetectable,” Pote said. “And now is the season. People have to make sure that they don’t burn anything inside unless their home is vented properly.”

And special care must be taken with gas-producing heating devices, he said.

“When gas-producing devices are burning properly, they produce water vapor and carbon dioxide. But if (the mixture) is too lean or too rich, it will start producing carbon monoxide as one of its components.”

The first step to stop or avoid such an imbalance, Pote said, is to “have one of the heating and air-conditioning companies come out and check all of the equipment. They have the equipment to measure carbon monoxide levels, and they’ll know if the home is vented properly.”

Also, carbon monoxide detectors generally priced between $40 to $50 can be installed in homes and garages to warn of any unhealthy emissions.

“As a bare minimum, I would recommend that every home have one or two of those,” Pote said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP) recommends carbon monoxide detectors which meet the requirements of Underwriters Laboratories (UL) standard 2034, and suggests that they be placed in bedrooms and on the ceilings above fuel-burning appliances. The devices sound an alarm before dangerous levels of carbon monoxide accumulate giving you ample time to ventilate the home or get out before health effects occur.

‘A secure environment’

For even greater protection, the CDCP offers these additional safety tips:

  • Have only a qualified technician install or convert fuel-burning equipment.
  • Have your chimney and flue inspected and cleaned every year.
  • Do not using ovens and gas ranges to heat your home.
  • Do not burn charcoal inside a home, cabin, recreational vehicle or camper.
  • Do not operate gas-powered engines such as your car in confined areas such as garages or basements unless there is good ventilation.
  • Make sure your furnace has an adequate intake of outside air.
  • Choose vented appliances whenever possible.
  • Use kerosene space heaters and unvented gas heaters only in well-ventilated rooms.
  • When purchasing portable heaters, look for new-generation models designed to shut down if carbon monoxide in enclosed spaces reaches dangerous levels.
  • Gas-fired hot water heaters can be cause for concern. Look at the color of the appliance’s pilot light. A blue-colored flame is an indication that fuel is being burned efficiently, without dangerous carbon monoxide escaping. A yellow flame means that fuel is not burning efficiently and is possibly releasing a dangerous amount of carbon monoxide. This precaution applies to gas-fueled stoves and ovens as well.

“A warm, secure environment is enhanced by the knowledge that you have taken steps to protect your loved ones from carbon monoxide poisoning,” Pote said.

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