During a normal year, hyperbaric medicine doctors at Dixie Regional Medical Center treat between three and ten cases of carbon monoxide poisoning. In 2012, that number jumped to 32.
Granted 20 of those poisonings happened in a single incident (a family on a houseboat at Lake Powell), but still the total number of incidents is clearly on the rise.
Carbon monoxide poisoning occurs when appliances powered by fossil fuels — a natural gas water heater or clothes dryer, a kerosene space heater, a gasoline-powered tool or car, a portable generator — vent fumes into the house, garage, boat, houseboat, or workshop. The carbon monoxide in the fumes enters the blood stream and prevents oxygen from reaching the vital organs. The brain, nervous system, and heart are especially vulnerable to permanent damage.
The best way to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning is to have a carbon monoxide sensor on every level of your home and in the garage. A carbon monoxide sensor can save your bacon, but only if you pay attention to it. If it goes off, do not unplug it. Get out of the house and open all the doors and windows. Once you are outside, call the gas company or the fire department. They can come and test the levels in your home. They are happy to do it.
Carbon monoxide is especially dangerous because it is colorless, tasteless, and odorless. In addition, early symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are very similar to those of the flu. The tendency is to stay in bed when you feel like that. But in the case of carbon monoxide poisoning, staying home in bed is the worst thing you can do.
There are several things you can do to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning:
- Have all your natural gas appliances serviced on a yearly basis.
- Do not warm up your car or use gasoline-powered tools inside the garage. Most people think they’re safe if they open the garage door. But when the air inside the garage is warmer than the air outside, it creates a thermal barrier that keeps the carbon monoxide in. That carbon monoxide can then leak into the house.
- Replace carbon monoxide sensors regularly. They are moist sensors, and they all expire, usually five years from the date of manufacture.
If you suspect you have had carbon monoxide poisoning, seek medical attention. Many people think that if they just get away everything will be ok, but that is not true. It can take more than 24 hours for carbon monoxide in the bloodstream to expire. That can be made much shorter by breathing pure oxygen, and much much shorter with oxygen therapy in a hyperbaric chamber.