By: Frank Counselman, M.D.
Carbon Monoxide is widely known as ‘the silent killer’ and with good reason.
Back in May, two men died in a Portsmouth home and a woman was hospitalized in critical condition after they ran a portable generator indoors.
After the recent ‘November Northeaster’ a woman was treated in the hyperbaric oxygen chambers at Sentara Leigh Hospital after running a generator inside a home during a power outage.
In January, 12 children and two adults at a day care center in Portsmouth were evaluated at hospitals for vomiting and confusion when a faulty boiler created dangerous levels of carbon monoxide. There are too many such stories.
Known chemically as CO, this colorless, odorless gas kills an average of 170 people in homes and businesses in the U.S. each year from combustion sources other than motor vehicles. These include furnaces, kerosene heaters, portable generators, gas appliances, grills and fireplaces or wood stoves. With the onset of cooler weather, people will soon be turning up the heat in their homes and, with it, the potential for CO exposure.
One of the most common sources of CO poisoning is portable generators. Some people set them up in their attached garages to keep them out of the rain, which is a big mistake, because exhaust fumes have direct access to the living space. Others place generators so close to their homes that fumes waft through open doors and windows and poison the people inside.
Carbon Monoxide kills you by forcing oxygen out of your red blood cells and starving your body of oxygen. Symptoms of CO poisoning mimic other types of illnesses and people might not realize they are in danger.
Early symptoms include headache, nausea, fatigue, dizziness or shortness of breath. As exposure worsens, symptoms progress to mental confusion, vomiting, loss of coordination and unconsciousness leading to death unless those exposed are removed from the poisoned environment into fresh air.
Suspect CO poisoning when everyone in the home or workplace comes down with symptoms all at once, including pets. This scenario is different from, say, the flu where there is usually some lag time between onsets.
If paramedics can get you to the emergency room alive with CO poisoning, the primary medical treatment is high flow oxygen. In severe cases, hyperbaric oxygen is used. This is the same high-pressure oxygen therapy given scuba divers who develop The Bends, those painful nitrogen bubbles in the blood from too-rapid ascents. Hyperbaric oxygen purges CO from the blood, restores proper oxygen levels in the body and hopefully prevents permanent damage to the brain and internal organs. However, it does not always work. Some victims die or live on with debilitating after effects.
The best way to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning is to play it safe with all combustion appliances.
Have your furnace checked annually for proper combustion and venting.
Never, ever run a portable generator inside your house, not ever.
Place portable generators far enough from the house to avoid fumes.
If you use a kerosene heater, make sure the room has good ventilation.
Place carbon monoxide detectors in recommended living areas.
If you suspect carbon monoxide is affecting people in your home or workplace,
Evacuate everyone to the outdoors.
Ventilate the area by opening doors and windows.
Call 911. The fire department can measure CO in the atmosphere and investigate the cause.
Make sure anyone exposed, especially anyone showing symptoms, is evaluated medically.
Frank Counselman, M.D. is past president of the medical staff for Sentara hospitals Norfolk and is Chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Eastern Virginia Medical School. Dr. Counselman is a Fellow of the American College of Emergency Physicians.