A few weeks into our winter weather season, and we’ve already had one major storm with power outages. Since this storm happened over the change from daylight saving time to standard time, perhaps you, like me, may have forgotten to change the batteries in your smoke and carbon monoxide alarms – or maybe you haven’t even gone around to the hardware store to pick a CO alarm up yet. So, friends, we both need a little reminder about why a CO detector is a must have at home and just as important as a smoke alarm. Let’s review.
What is Carbon Monoxide Poisoning?
- Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless gas produced as a byproduct of combustion. Poisoning occurs by inhalation, either accidentally or intentionally.
- CO poisoning is responsible for an estimated 50,000 emergency department visits and 1,000 accidental deaths in the United States annually. All poisoning patients should be evaluated at the nearest emergency department and be given 100 percent oxygen by mask. Approximately 5 to 6 percent of patients evaluated in emergency departments for CO poisoning are treated with hyperbaric oxygen therapy.
- CO binds to the hemoglobin in red blood cells at the sites usually utilized to carry oxygen to the tissues. Oxygen, and especially hyperbaric oxygen, accelerates the clearance of CO from the body, thereby restoring oxygen delivery to sensitive tissue such as the brain and the heart. Newer research shows that hyperbaric oxygen also helps protect the brain through other mechanisms.
Stormy weather can bring about cases of carbon monoxide poisoning because of power outages or other mishaps, such as letting your car run too long in the garage as it warms up or not properly venting a heater in a workspace. Cliff Mass describes November as the “windiest, wettest, and most difficult time of the year,” so again no time like the present in getting that CO alarm.
If you were around the Puget Sound in December 2006, you’ll remember the “Hanukkah Eve Windstorm.” The 70 to 100 mph winds and record-breaking rainfall caused widespread power outages. More than 250 people were treated for CO poisoning and eight died, all from either burning charcoal briquettes inside their homes or from improper use of gasoline-powered generators. In response to this preventable tragedy, building codes in Washington now require CO alarms in most residential buildings, including single-family homes.
And CO alarms help protect you even if the source is outside your home.
“Carbon monoxide from external sources can easily penetrate drywall commonly used in apartments and houses, potentially exposing people indoors to the odorless gas within minutes,” says James Holm, MD, Hyperbaric Medicine, and co-author of the first study to examine the ability of CO to diffuse through gypsum wallboard. “Residents of apartments or condos can bring sources of CO production into their units and put themselves and people in neighboring units in harm’s way.”
So, best to put those new batteries in your CO alarm now before our next windy weather (or dare I mention it so close to Thanksgiving, snowstorm) event. In addition, Dr. Holm recommends these safety tips to avoid CO poisoning:
- Never run generators in an enclosed space, such as an attached garage.
- Never use a gas oven to heat your home, even for a short time.
- Never warm up your vehicle by idling the engine inside a garage.
- Never sleep in a room while using an unvented gas or kerosene heater.
- Always make sure that chimneys and flues are in good condition and are not blocked.
Finally, remember CO alarms only last about five years, so make sure your alarm is replaced when expired.
So, safety first and see you at the hardware store when you pick up your new batteries for both your CO and smoke alarms.