Awareness, alarms prevent CO deaths

ST. PAUL — Carbon monoxide (CO) is the leading cause of poisoning deaths in the United States, and 60 Minnesotans have died from CO poisoning in the five years from 2006 through 2010.

Most recently, a Cleveland, Minn., man became a victim of CO poisoning while he and a friend worked on a tractor in an enclosed space.

Awareness of the characteristics of CO, and alarms that react to the presence of this colorless, odorless killer can prevent tragedies in homes, garages and other spaces where CO gas might accumulate.

Carbon monoxide is commonly associated with car exhaust (if you can smell it, you’re breathing some level of carbon monoxide) but any inefficient fuel-burning devices can produce CO, including gas furnaces, water heaters and power generators. In homes, garages and workshops without CO alarms, the poison gas can accumulate to a lethal level without warning.

Minnesota law requires every single- or multi-family dwelling have a UL-listed CO alarm within 10 feet of each bedroom; one alarm placed within 10 feet of multiple rooms used for sleeping fulfils the requirement. Residents should follow manufacturer’s instructions on maintenance and plan to replace alarms every five to seven years.

If your CO alarm goes off, leave your home or building immediately and call 911 from outside. Tell the dispatcher if anyone displays signs of CO poisoning; they include headache, nausea and drowsiness. More serious signs are severe nausea, chest pain, seizures or coma. Pregnant women and people with histories of heart disease or stroke are at greater risk from CO poisoning.

These precautions will help protect you and people you live or work with from CO poisoning:

All homes should have CO alarms and smoke detectors; both can be purchased at discount hardware and building supply stores.

Have a qualified technician inspect your furnace and check fuel-burning appliances in the fall. Make sure all fuel-burning appliances are adequately vented and properly maintained.

When using a fireplace, wood stove or space heater, provide adequate ventilation.

Portable propane camping equipment and gas barbecues are approved for outdoor use only. They should never be used inside cabins, tents, fish houses, recreational vehicles or boats. Read labels on recreational appliances and follow manufacturers’ operating instructions.

If your car is stuck in the snow, clear the tail pipe of snow before starting the engine. Keep it clear if you use the engine for heat. Watch for symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning.

During power outages, do not use gasoline engines or burn charcoal in enclosed spaces, including a garage, even if the door is open. Do not use gas stoves or ovens to heat living areas.

The Minnesota Department of Public Safety Winter Hazard Awareness website carries a fact sheet on protecting yourself from CO poisoning with links to additional materials on home heating issues, preventing CO buildup during power outages, and more. The Minnesota Department of Health Indoor Air Unit offers CO statistics along with more advice and assistance