Carbon monoxide: the silent killer

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Two cadets were driving westbound on Interstate 70 en route back to the Air Force Academy in 1983 following a Thanksgiving weekend shared with family and friends. A nasty snowstorm had set in, making travel treacherous. Conditions on this Kansas stretch of interstate soon became impassable as the terrain, winds and heavy snow created deep drifts. The cadets' vehicle became stuck in a snow drift. The cold was intense and they knew to run the vehicle's engine only intermittently and to keep the exhaust pipe clear of drifting snow.

But Mother Nature conspired against their best efforts. The overpass they were under formed a natural wind break, and snow piled up more quickly than they could clear it. This allowed for the buildup of a deadly gas -- carbon monoxide -- inside the vehicle. This buildup of gas, coupled with the insidious nature of carbon monoxide poisoning, sealed the fate of the two cadets.

A tragic death? Absolutely! Uncommon or rare? Not at all. In fact, carbon monoxide, or CO, is the number-one cause of poisoning fatalities in the United States, resulting in more than 15,000 emergency room cases and roughly 3,300 deaths each year. But what makes it so insidious and, more importantly, how do you prevent becoming a victim of this silent killer?

First, the facts: CO is a colorless, odorless and deadly gas. It is a byproduct of combustion, so common sources include automobiles, gas-fired appliances, kerosene and propane space heaters and wood or charcoal units. It neither sinks nor rises; it mixes well with air. Because you can't see, taste or smell it, CO can kill you before you even know it's there.

While we are not entirely helpless, the subtle nature of CO may cause symptoms to be misread. At low to moderate levels of exposure, common symptoms include headache, fatigue, nausea, dizzy spells, confusion and irritability. These symptoms may easily be ignored or mistaken for some other ailment.

With the facts in hand, the real question is, How can you protect yourself and your family? The following tips address prevention and detection.

PREVENTION

-- Immediately remove your car from the garage after starting the engine. Even if the garage doors are open, the CO can build up very quickly in the garage and living area of your home.
-- Have your vehicle's exhaust system inspected if you have any suspicion of leaks. Repair any holes in the muffler or exhaust system, holes in the vehicle body, and any malfunction of the emission control system.
-- In vehicles equipped with a rear door hatch, do not drive with the hatch open. This creates a back draft which draws the vehicle's exhaust into the cab.
-- Equip your vehicle with emergency supplies such as extra clothing and blankets, flashlight, energy foods, drinking water, a small shovel and chemical-based emergency hand warmers.
-- If you're stranded, run the engine as a last resort to stay warm; in such cases, run it only periodically and make sure the exhaust pipe is not blocked.
-- Have your home's fuel-burning appliances serviced annually by a qualified service technician.
-- Do not modify your appliances or the fresh air intake or exhaust ventilation systems in utility rooms.
-- When replacing heating appliances, purchase appliances designed to reduce dangers from CO, such as sealed combustion gas furnaces, direct vent gas fireplaces, and induced draft gas water heaters. Alternatively, consider electric appliances, as they do not produce carbon monoxide.
-- Do not use fuel-burning space heaters or barbecue grills in any enclosed area such as a garage, tent, camper or bedroom.

DETECTION

-- Install at least one CO detector in your home. For extra protection, install one on each level of a home and/or in every bedroom. Hardwired units with an audible alarm and battery backup offer the best protection
-- Replace the batteries every fall when the daylight savings time change occurs.
-- Replace CO detectors regularly, as they require replacement every three to seven years depending upon the type of sensors. Check with the manufacturer's recommendation.
-- Consider portable CO detectors for cars, boats, campers or other vehicles.

Take decisive and active steps today to neutralize the threat of CO and keep your friends and family safe. The tragic loss of two cadets on that snowy day in 1983 will always serve as a stark reminder of the dangers of the silent killer.