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Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Prevent Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Carbon monoxide, or CO, is a highly toxic gas. You cannot see, smell, or taste it. Breathing high levels of CO can cause sudden illness or death in a matter of minutes. Gas- and oil-burning furnaces produce CO, an invisible, odorless, poison gas that kills hundreds every year and makes thousands more, sick. Although unintentional CO poisoning can almost always be prevented, CO is the most common cause of poisoning deaths in the United States and every year and in 2019, more than 24 New Mexicans died from CO poisoning. Patients who survive are likely to develop long-term neurological problems.

CO poisoning is preventable and there are several things you and your family can do to ensure your safety. Poisoning is more common during colder months when people tend to be indoors but can happen year-round in homes, garages, and businesses. Doing an appliance check-up and practicing safety can reduce the risk in all seasons.

Who is at risk for carbon monoxide poisoning?

People of all ages are at risk for CO poisoning but it can be especially dangerous for certain groups.

  • Pregnant women and children; CO poisoning can be highly dangerous for unborn children, because it greatly increases the risk of fetal death and developmental disorders.
  • People of all ages living with a chronic disorder of the blood (such as anemia), brain (such as seizures or stroke), heart (such as angina or heart failure), or lungs (such as asthma, bronchitis, emphysema).
  • The elderly: older adults more frequently have chronic diseases which lower their tolerance and increase the risk a fatal exposure.
  • People in certain occupations are at greater risk for exposure, especially those that require working around combustion sources such as mechanics, firefighters, longshore workers, diesel engine and forklift operators, and tunnel or toll booth attendants1. Workers in warehouses exposed to propane or diesel forklifts and restaurant workers, such as charcoal meat grillers and indoor barbeque workers may also be at risk for CO exposure 2.

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning: Symptoms and Emergencies

Symptoms can feel like the flu.

The early symptoms of CO poisoning are flulike and include:

  • Headache
  • Irritability
  • Dizziness, poor coordination
  • Confusion, impaired judgment, memory loss
  • Fatigue, weakness
  • Nausea, vomiting, upset stomach
  • Chest pain, rapid heartbeat
  • Difficult or shallow breathing (shortness of breath)
  • Changes in hearing, vision, smell, taste, or touch.

Sources of Carbon Monoxide

CO gas is produced and released whenever fuel or other materials are burned. It is found in combustion fumes, such as those produced by small gasoline engines, stoves, generators, lanterns, and gas ranges or by burning charcoal and wood. It can build up and concentrate in enclosed or partially enclosed spaces. The build-up of CO in an enclosed space is not easily detected because it cannot be seen or smelled. Common sources include:

  • Homes, often due to faulty furnaces, heaters, fireplaces, and stoves.
  • In garages, campers, or tents when outdoor appliances are used an enclosed space.
  • Inside a garage or shed due to a vehicle engine running.
  • In your car, truck, or SUV, if the tailpipe gets clogged with mud or snow.
Unclean woods stoves can lead to carbon monoxide exposure.

Tips for Homes, Cars, and Recreation

CO poisonings that happen in the home are often due to faulty furnaces, heaters, fireplaces, stoves and by using outdoor appliances inside the house. Poisonings that happen around the home occur when outdoor appliances such as generators and heaters are used in garages and semi-enclosed spaces or when a vehicle is operated in an enclosed space, such as garages. Away from the home, CO poisoning happens in vehicles or when using outdoor appliances in tents or shelters. The following tips are suggested to reduce the risk of exposure.

Generators

People use portable back-up generators when electricity is not available, such as when the power is out or when they go camping. Generators can also be used to provide power for a short time during recovery efforts after a disaster. Hospitals, utility facilities, and emergency response agencies use commercial generators to avoid disrupting services. Portable generators made for household use are designed to provide temporary power to operate a few appliances or lights. Although useful, especially in an emergency, be careful when using generators as they release carbon monoxide gas. Many people become sick each year from using generators incorrectly. More information on generators can be found in the "Downloads and Resources" section below.

Carbon monoxide detectors: An added safety measure

In addition to having your furnace, heaters, fireplaces, and stoves inspected and maintained annually, it is a good idea to install CO detectors near bedrooms and living spaces as a safety measure. (CO detectors are intended to complement, not replace, your prevention routine of maintaining appliances and furnaces).

Although most detectors will not alarm for on-going low-levels, most will alarm when the level has reached a point which can be immediately deadly. An alarming detector alerts people to quickly get outside. CO gas can suddenly build up to a dangerous level when a furnace recently cracked or if a fireplace chimney becomes clogged, for example. These types of unexpected malfunctions can happen when your family is sleeping. For these reasons, having a detector is an important step in your prevention routine. CO detectors are inexpensive and are available from most hardware stores and department stores. Some models are combined with a smoke alarm.

What to do if the CO Detector Alarm Sounds

When a CO detector in your home has alarmed, that is a cue for you to immediately evacuate the house. As with fire alarms, it is important practice with household members what to do when they hear the alarm. Have a plan for getting out of the house, waking family members, and designate meeting place outside of the home. If you must wake family members or assist people out of the home, open windows to help reduce the concentration of the CO. Leave your doors open as you exit the house.

An alarming detector could be an indication of a harmful exposure and medical attention may be needed, even if symptoms are not apparent. You, the emergency responder, or your health care professional may call the New Mexico Poison and Drug Information Center at 1-800-222-1222 for guidance. You should also call your gas or propane company if your home is powered by gas. Do not go back into the home or building until the source of CO has been found by local emergency authorities (which may be first responders or your gas company) and until the exposure has been stopped either by removal of fuels and/or repairs of appliances by a qualified technician (which could include a heating and cooling professional). Many households, especially in rural areas, use propane. You should include the phone number of the company that provides your fuel with your emergency contacts.

Gas emergencies and leaks

If you have a gas emergency, or suspect a gas leak, contact the company that provides gas to your home. For many New Mexicans, including the Albuquerque metro area, a common provider is the *New Mexico Gas Company at 888-644-2726. (*Inclusion of this company and number are not an endorsement. These are listed only for safety and convenience of the New Mexico public). You should also have handy the number of the company that services your furnace or that has recently installed your furnace.

Potential sources of carbon monoxide leaks around the house

According to the U.S. Consumer and Product Safety Commission, the common CO leak clues you can see around the home are rusting or water streaking on vent/chimney; loose or missing furnace panel; debris or soot falling from chimney, fireplace, or appliances; loose or disconnected vent/chimney for a fireplace or appliance; loose masonry on chimney moisture inside of windows.

CO leaks you cannot see are internal appliance damage or malfunctioning components, improper burner adjustments, or hidden blockage or damage in chimneys.

Notifiable Diseases or Conditions in New Mexico (N.M.A.C 7.4.3.13)

Carbon monoxide poisoning is an environmental condition reportable to the New Mexico Department of Health. Report to Epidemiology and Response Division, NM Department of Health, P.O. Box 26110, Santa Fe, NM 87502-6110; or call 505-827-0006.