Carbon Monoxide Alarms: Reacting Long Before Odorless Gas Puts Families In Danger
Cheryl Burt had the choice of buying a carbon monoxide (CO) alarm or the toy truck her son Zachary had wanted for his birthday. Nearly 10 years later, she still has the truck, but she lost her son - and his brother Nicholas- to CO poisoning.
"I should be raising a large family right now," said Burt, a Minnesota mother who lives with her surviving son Ryan. "Every day I have to live with my decision. I have to live with the fact that the loss of their lives was preventable by something as simple as a carbon monoxide alarm."
As fall approaches and the cooler weather prompts residents to fire up their furnaces, Underwriters Laboratories Inc. (UL), the not-for-profit product safety testing organization, is urging homeowners to purchase CO alarms and replace the batteries in existing CO alarms.
Called the silent killer, CO is an odorless, colorless gas produced by incomplete burning of fuel, such as propane, kerosene, gasoline, oil, natural gas, wood and charcoal. Sources of CO in homes can include malfunctioning gas-fired appliances, space heaters and chimney flues. Each year, more than 250 people die and 10,000 seek medical attention for accidental carbon monoxide poisoning, primarily because they don't recognize the warning signs of exposure.
"We knew we had been sick but we didn't know why," Burt recalled. "I was continually bringing my children to the doctor. They would wake up in the morning lethargic and ill, but after a 20-minute drive to the doctor's office they would be running around and playing. No one caught on that it was carbon monoxide from a faulty furnace. A CO alarm would have warned us long before our lives were in danger."
Symptoms of CO poisoning include nausea, fatigue, headaches, dizziness, breathing difficulty and confusion - but they are general enough to be confused with the flu, according to Dr. Jerrold Leikin, director of Medical Toxicology for Evanston Northwestern Healthcare in Illinois. CO alarms are designed to alert residents before carbon monoxide concentrations grow to toxic levels, often giving homeowners hours of advance notice.
"A CO alarm should not be confused with a smoke alarm," said John Drengenberg, manager of Consumer Affairs for UL. "A smoke alarm tells you to get out immediately. A CO alarm warns of a potential poisoning risk, usually long before are symptoms are apparent, which allows you time to get help. You need both life safety devices in your home."
In addition to purchasing one or more CO alarms for home, UL's Drengenberg also recommends these preventive measures:
- Have a qualified technician inspect your fuel-burning appliances and chimneys to ensure they operate correctly and that nothing blocks the vapors from being vented out of the house;
- Install a UL-Listed CO alarm according to the manufacturer's instructions and at least 10 feet away from fuel-burning appliances and outside of sleeping areas;
- Test your CO alarm at least once a month and replace the battery at least once a year;
- Make sure all family members know the difference between the sound of a CO alarm and smoke alarm;
- Never ignore a CO alarm. If your CO alarm sounds, immediately operate the reset/silence button and call your fire department or 9-1-1;
- Move to fresh air, either outside or to an open window or door. Account for every household member;
- Don't re-enter your home or move away from the open door or window until the emergency services have arrived, the home is sufficiently aired out and the CO alarm doesn't reactivate;
- If your CO alarm reactivates within a 24-hour period, repeat the steps above and call a qualified technician to examine your appliances and make any appropriate repairs.
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