Stayin' Alive: CO Habitating

Editor's note: This column ran in the Watershed Post on July 8, 2011. It's still good advice, and we're resurrecting it, in light of a spate of carbon monoxide poisonings and deaths around the region. Earlier this week, two Shokan residents were found dead after an apparent generator accident, and just this morning, five Poughkeepsie residents were found suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning in their home after a heater malfunction. Two are in critical condition.

Don't run generators indoors. Keep your home heating system in good order. And make sure you have a working CO alarm. But don't take it from us: Take it from the guy who responds to your frantic 911 calls. --Ed.

Carbon monoxide (CO) is an invisible, odorless, and poisonous gas found in the fumes of burning fuel that contains carbon -- fuels such as wood, charcoal, fuels used in a camp stove or lantern, or the gasoline used in a generator.

Generally speaking, CO in a completely open area is not harmful. However, CO in an enclosed or partially enclosed area can be very harmful and even deadly once an individual is exposed. On average, 170 people per year are killed by CO from non-automotive products, and the CDC reports that "thousands" are seen in hospitals for CO poisoning every year. 

Compounding the deadly nature of this gas is the fact that the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning mimic the flu or the common cold, so you may not realize that you are exposed to this silent killer until you have received potentially deadly doses. CO reduces the blood’s ability to retain oxygen. Low levels of oxygen in the body can make you pass out and eventually cause bodily systems to stop functioning properly. In extreme cases of carbon monoxide poisoning, your body can shut down completely. And you know what happens after that.

If you burn wood or charcoal, or use a camp stove, fuel-burning lantern, or generator in a tent or shelter, you could be poisoned by CO. Please be aware of these risks while camping this year, as many people don’t think of this risk while on a camping trip. When in doubt, bring a battery-operated detector along with you -- especially if you travel in a travel trailer or camper that is not already equipped.

And although this installment of "Stayin' Alive" focuses on our campy types, don't forget to protect yourself at home from the dangers of CO poisoning. Be sure to install a CO alarm that meets the requirements of the current UL 2034 safety standard. A CO alarm can provide some added protection, but is no substitute for proper use and upkeep of appliances that can produce CO in the home. Install a CO alarm in the hallway near every separate sleeping area of the home (hint: near the smoke detectors) and be sure to change the batteries every time you change the clocks back!

Stay Safe Out There!

Rich Muellerleile is the captain of the Shandaken Ambulance Service. He posts regular safety tips in his column, Stayin' Alive.