Furnaces and other heating elements that burn coal, wood, charcoal, propane or natural gas all produce carbon monoxide, which can collect in a home or garage and cause poisoning. The gas cannot be detected by its odor, which means that many people are exposed each year, and some run the risk of serious health problems or even death.
There are several steps you can take to reduce your risk of exposure:
Schedule an annual check up – for your furnace and hot water heater. It’s important to have all gas-fired furnaces and hot water heaters checked by heating and air conditioning (HVAC) professionals annually. I’ve cared for patients poisoned by furnaces that cracked in the preceding months, or the flue became obstructed in the summer by a bird’s nest.
Every home and business should have a carbon monoxide alarm. I recommend carbon monoxide alarms meeting the UL 2034 standard; alarms with a digital display add an additional level of protection. It’s possible for carbon monoxide to be present in levels that will show on the digital display but lower than the level necessary to trigger an alarm.
If your digital carbon monoxide alarm detects even a low level of gas, please have the area checked by the gas company, an HVAC specialist. If you're also experiencing symptoms of exposure, call the Fire Department.
Replace your carbon monoxide alarm every five years and consider bringing one along when you travel. Carbon monoxide alarms designed to sound at levels lower than that of residential alarms are available at www.coexperts.com. Personally, I use a residential alarm with a digital display, and travel with a smaller, portable alarm that detects carbon monoxide at lower levels.
Be aware of symptoms. Carbon monoxide poisoning can be lethal, sometimes with no advance sign of trouble. This is especially true when people are exposed during their sleep and are unaware or unable to call for help.
At lower levels of exposure, though, there are common symptoms, including:
- the feeling that something is not right
- even loss of consciousness
If you experience symptoms consistent with carbon monoxide poisoning, evacuate the area immediately and call 911. At the Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy Department, we treat carbon monoxide poisoning with high-flow oxygen, sometimes in a special room or capsule called a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, to reduce the chance of permanent brain damage.
Be suspicious of carbon monoxide if multiple individuals have “flu-like” symptoms all at once, especially if fever is absent. Another clue about poisoning is if one improves when out of the area where the carbon monoxide exposure is occurring.
Unfortunately, once poisoned, individuals may run the risk of permanent brain or cardiac injury. Treatment for carbon monoxide poisoning reduces this risk but even with prompt oxygen therapy, disability can still occur. Therefore thinking about carbon monoxide, and how to prevent it and avoid it is important.