Silent Killer: An Invisible, Sometime Fatal Threat

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Carbon monoxide is tasteless. It is odorless. It is colorless. And the noxious gas kills without warning.On January 14, a Water Mill man nearly found out the hard way.

It was the late afternoon and he was cutting concrete in his poorly ventilated basement with a gas-powered saw. Fortunately for him, his carbon monoxide alarm was activated, sending the Southampton Fire Department to the rescue before he even knew that there were dangerous levels of the gas present. By the time the fire department arrived, the carbon monoxide levels were in excess of 500 parts per million.

“That’s deadly, but he seemed okay,” Southampton Town Fire Marshal John Rankin recalled last week during a telephone interview. “Fifteen parts per million is still considered safe, but any higher? He was very lucky.”

Cases of carbon monoxide poisoning—the leading cause of non-drug, unintentional poisoning in the United States—is responsible for approximately 15,000 emergency department visits and roughly 430 deaths every year, according to the United States Department of Health and Human Services’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The vast majority take place during the cold winter months, when homes are nearly airtight and heating systems are cranked high. Or, worse yet, when portable heaters and generators are working overtime thanks to storms and natural disasters.

“If they’re placed inside the house and even near windows and vents, where the carbon monoxide comes out of, it can get into the house,” Dr. Kanta Sircar, an epidemiologist with CDC’s Air Pollution and Respiratory Health Branch, said last week during a telephone interview. “Piled up, it can be dangerous.”

“And in winter, people use their furnace more,” added Scott Damon, Air Pollution and Respiratory Health Branch health communication activity lead. “And they might be more inclined to warm their car up in the garage than they would in July. It’s human behavior.”

Carbon monoxide—abbreviated as “CO” and also known as “the silent killer”—is a product of combustion, according to Mr. Rankin. It’s found in fumes produced by cars and trucks, small gasoline engines, stoves, lanterns, burning charcoal and wood, gas ranges and heating systems.

If there is a lot of CO in the air, anyone exposed may have the oxygen in their blood replaced with CO, because red blood cells pick up CO quicker than they pick up oxygen. This blocks oxygen from getting into the body—effectively starving vital organs, including the heart and brain, of oxygen—which can damage tissues and result in death.

The spectrum of common symptoms is vast, including headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, chest pain and confusion. High levels can cause loss of consciousness and death. The time it takes for any symptoms to set in varies, Dr. Sircar explained, depending on the CO level and length of exposure.

“These symptoms are nondescript, in this sense. So they mimic other illnesses, too,” she said. “So I think it’s a mixture of understanding your environment, too. Of course, if you have a CO detector in your house, that is also a very good indicator that CO might be present. When you feel those symptoms, call 911 immediately.”

Unless suspected, or an alarm sounds, CO poisoning can be very difficult to diagnose. 
People who are intoxicated or sleeping can die from CO poisoning before ever experiencing symptoms. It is imperative for every home to have at least one smoke detector and carbon monoxide detector on each floor, which should be 
replaced every five to seven years, and their batteries checked every time the clocks are changed.

They are a matter of life and death, Mr. Rankin said, speaking from experience.

About 20 years ago, he was sleeping next to his wife on a pull-out couch at his father-in-law’s Vermont home when the fire alarm sounded. When he rolled out of bed and hit the floor, he was immediately disoriented.

The kerosene heater burning next to them had malfunctioned and was unleashing smoke, soot and carbon monoxide into the residence, he recalled.

“Even being a fireman, you think about it back then, and it was scary,” he said. “That’s quite a life experience. We shut it off, put it outside and ventilated the house, in the middle of the night. We didn’t sleep the rest of the night.”

Every year, the Southampton Town Department of Fire Prevention receives about 30 carbon monoxide calls. Mr. Rankin reported. In January alone, he said that he has already 
responded to three—and the local fire departments do not call the fire marshals for every carbon monoxide incident they receive.

He warned that CO poisoning is a serious, sometimes fatal, business.

“Pretty much all the calls are in the winter or heating months,” he said. “When a CO detector goes off, you need to call somebody. You can’t just look 
around and not see anything and say nothing, and pull the 
detector out and reset it and put it back in again. There’s something there they may not be seeing. It’s not like seeing something like a fire.”

For more information on carbon monoxide poisoning and prevention, visit cdc.gov/co.

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