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Feeling headache-y, nauseous, tired and confused? You might suspect a case of the flu. But it could also be the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Carbon monoxide (CO) is an invisible, odorless fume that can be impossible to detect, which is why it's earned the ominous nickname "the silent killer." Carbon monoxide is emitted by the burning of fuel -- things like gas, wood, and charcoal. Gas-burning appliances, such as water heaters and furnaces and furnaces, give off carbon monoxide -- but if the appliances are functioning correctly, the carbon monoxide is vented to the outdoors.

On the other hand, if the appliance is not burning cleanly, and/or is not vented to the outside, you and your family could be slowly poisoned over time as you breathe in unhealthy doses of carbon monoxide.

Every year, about 200 people in the United States die from carbon monoxide poisoning associated with home fuel-burning heating appliances, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that carbon monoxide poisoning causes 430 non-intentional and non-fire-related deaths per year. And thousands more victims are treated in emergency rooms.

Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
In addition to the flu-like symptoms listed above, carbon monoxide poisoning may cause vomiting, chest pains and even hallucinations. In one famous case documented by The American Journal of Emergency Medicine (AJEM) a terrified 23-year-old woman was found delirious and hyperventilating after she thought she saw a ghost in the shower. In reality, a new water heater nearby had been improperly installed, causing it to put off the carbon monoxide that poisoned her.

Causes of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

According to the CPSC, carbon monoxide poisoning is caused by these conditions:

-- Malfunctioning fuel-burning appliances, such as furnaces, ranges, water heaters and room heaters.
-- Engine-powered appliances, such as generators used inside. Generators should only be used outside and at least 15 feet from the house.
• Charcoal that is burned inside.
• Automobile exhaust from a car running in an attached garage. According to AJEM, elderly people are much more likely to die from carbon monoxide poisoning after leaving a car running in an attached garage.

A large number of carbon monoxide poisoning cases take place after weather and disasters knock out power and residents use carbon monoxide-emitting devices, such as charcoal grills, to keep warm. Also, if fireplaces chimneys become blocked (this sometimes happens during remodeling projects), dangerous levels of carbon monoxide can build up.

How to Prevent Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

The first line of defense is to take measure to make sure all appliances are in good repair and burning cleanly. Keep the chimney inspected and cleaned. Never leave the car running inside the garage. And never use camp stoves, charcoal stoves or generators inside an enclosed space like a house, cabin or tent.

carbon monoxide alarmA combination smoke/carbon monoxide detector, like this model by First Alert, is a sound investment. Photo: Smarthome

Next, buy and install carbon monoxide alarms inside your house. These devices will detect elevated levels of carbon monoxide in the air and sound a loud alarm. According to a study in The Journal of the American Medical Association, carbon monoxide detectors could have prevented half the fatalities in a New Mexico study group.

Carbon monoxide detectors can be hard-wired into the house, plugged into an outlet, or run by battery power. The idea is that detector will run on electricity and have a battery backup when the power goes out. And indeed, it's during those times when the power goes out that many carbon monoxide tragedies occur.

You can also buy a combination smoke/carbon monoxide alarm.

Place a carbon monoxide detector low on the wall; this makes plugging them into an outlet an ideal situation. The CPSC recommends placing one in the hallway outside each sleeping area. Prevent false alarms by not installing the device in the kitchen or directly above gas-powered appliances. (As we all know, when an alarm is so touchy that it goes off all the time and with little provocation, eventually we're going to disable it and leave ourselves and our families at risk.)

In the market for a carbon monoxide detector. Read consumer reviews online, like those from Consumer Reports. Depending on the model and source of power (AC or DC), your detector should be checked weekly or monthly (following manufacturer's instructions) to make sure it's working.

Considering all the other ways we protect ourselves and our families -- from seat belts to burglar alarms to eating right -- it only makes sense to invest some time and money into fighting and disarming the silent killer.

  • Kathie

    I truly believe they should make it mandatory just like smoke dect. to have carbon minox. dec. in each home . Maybe the price of the devices would come down ?!!!!!!!

  • Bobby

    Store bought detectors may or may not protect you and your family from CO. Read the fine print before you buy. Most alarm at over 69 ppm of CO after 3 or more hours. That could be too late. The best protection is a low level monitor that will alert you to levels as low as 5 ppm after a few minutes. They are a little more expensive, but well worth it.

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