PUBLISHED: 5:07 PM on Wednesday, November 21, 2007
Carbon monoxide can be a silent killer
Cooperative Extension Energy and Housing Specialist, Rich Seifert, related the story of a client who had a brush with carbon monoxide poisoning. The story was a common Alaska adventure gone wrong.

The client and her husband had driven to their weekend cabin. Upon arriving late, they built a fire in the woodstove and went to sleep.

The husband woke up several hours later, dizzy with the worst headache he had ever had. Recognizing the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, he woke up his wife and got her outdoors.

  Dr. Sonja Koukel
Both were having severe symptoms of weakness and confusion. Alarmed at how ill they felt, they took turns driving back to Fairbanks and checked into the hospital. Blood samples taken revealed high carboxyhemoglobin blood levels. Both patients were put on oxygen and recovered. These two people were lucky to have woken up.

The source of the carbon monoxide was an improperly drafting woodstove.

Carbon monoxide (CO) is the No. 1 cause of poisoning in the United States, and Alaska has the highest per capita carbon monoxide death rate in the nation. CO is a colorless and odorless gas.

Because you can't see, taste or smell it, it can affect you or your family before you even know it's there. Even at low levels of exposure, CO can cause serious health problems as it rapidly accumulates in the blood depleting the ability of blood to carry oxygen.

Carbon monoxide is a common by-product of the burning of fossil fuels, such as wood, kerosene, coal and charcoal. Most fuel-burning equipment (natural gas, propane and oil), if properly installed and maintained, produces little CO.

The by-products of combustion are usually safely vented to the outside.

However, if anything disrupts the venting process (such as a bird's nest in the chimney) or results in a shortage of oxygen to the burner, CO production can quickly rise to dangerous levels. A yellow flame, in a woodstove or a gas appliance, indicates incomplete combustion and a need for adjustment.

Gas cookstoves should be ventilated and the exhaust fan must be used when the stove is being used. Woodstoves operating under low oxygen conditions with smoldering fires produce much more CO than fires which have an ample supply of oxygen.

Gas furnaces, boilers, water heaters and appliances should be inspected, cleaned and adjusted annually to ensure that they are operating in peak condition. Inspect exhaust pipes annually as well.

Squirrels and hornets sometimes see these locations as a nesting site. Carbon monoxide poisoning is even more common with propane appliances.

Most people believe that just because propane is a clean fuel that it can be burned without proper ventilation. This is not so! Everyone is at risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. Some individuals are more sensitive than others: pregnant women; infants; the elderly; smokers; persons with heart, respiratory ailments, or anemia.

Different symptoms of poisoning appear as CO blood saturation levels increase.

The first symptoms to appear are headache, sleepiness, impaired motor skills and a lowered resistance to disease. As levels increase the headache becomes throbbing at the temples, and fatigue, nausea, and flu-like symptoms appear.

When the blood saturation levels reach between 30-40 percent, the individual may experience confusion, dizziness, vomiting and weakness. One of the greatest dangers is feeling sleepy and confused, which makes it increasingly difficult to identify symptoms. When blood saturation levels reach over 40 percent, death becomes possible.

A home carbon monoxide detector is a great idea in Alaska since much of the year is cold and time is spent indoors where combustion products are produced. Most detectors are designed to sound an alarm when levels reach a high-level in a short time. For people who have difficulty hearing audible alarms, there are CO detectors equipped with strobe flashing lights or bed shakers.

Health agencies advise that long term, low-level exposures are of concern especially for the unborn and young children, the elderly, and those with a history of heart or respiratory problems. Detectors that can display both high and low levels are more expensive but they do provide greater accuracy and more information.

Contact the Juneau District Extension office to learn more about keeping you and your family safe from carbon monoxide poisoning. The UAF CES publication, Carbon Monoxide (RAD-00756), can be downloaded free:

Dr. Sonja Koukel is the Juneau District Agent for the Home Economics Programs of the UAF Cooperative Extension Service.