Story last updated at 12/31/2008 - 11:45 am
The email message in my personal mailbox began, "Dear Friends and Colleagues - It is with deep sadness that we are sending this message out to all of you. On Friday, November 21, 2008 one of our professional colleagues faced a tragic situation that led to his untimely passing."
The message went on to explain that my friend was in the process of relocating to another city. On this November day, he and a friend had returned to his previous residence to prepare it for rental. It seems the weather was very cold and windy when they arrived and, apparently, the heater malfunctioned during the night. The carbon monoxide caused both of their deaths while they slept. My friend was 36 years old. He was an educator who worked extensively with youths before moving on to serve at the state level before relocating to another city to begin his new life adventure.
I don't generally share such personal news. However, I've taken time to think this through and I know my friend would advise me to take advantage of this "teachable moment." So, to honor my friend and his companion, I take this unfortunate situation to address the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning. Perhaps by sharing my friend's story, a life or lives will be saved.
Carbon monoxide (CO) is the number one 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 that 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; and persons with heart or 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%, 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%, 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 display both high and low levels are more expensive but they do provide greater accuracy and more information.
I'm certain it's all been heard before. Many of us, myself included, may be undisturbed by the warnings over time. But what I realized through my friend's death, a loss that has touched me deeply, is that we cannot become complacent about protecting our loved ones and ourselves from this deadly substance. Please stay alert. Have a safe and secure winter season.
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: www.alaska.edu/uaf/ces
Dr. Sonja Koukel is the Health, Home & Family Development Program educator for the Cooperative Extension Service UAF Juneau District.