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'Tis the Season for CO Poisoning

October 24, 2016

(The Daily Iowan/Isabella Senno)

It’s winter’s invisible killer.

Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless, and tasteless poisonous gas that is virtually undetectable by our senses. With the weather getting colder, the risk of poisoning in homes goes up.

 “The interesting thing about carbon monoxide is that you don’t know that it’s there until you start getting sick or until your carbon-monoxide detector goes off,” said Tammy Noble, the specialist in poison information for the Iowa Poison Control Center.

Carbon monoxide is created when there is an incomplete burning of carbon fuels, such as natural gas, coal, or wood. Common sources in the home include gas-fueled equipment such as furnaces, power generators, and water heaters, as well as fireplaces and motor vehicles.

In the winter, more people tend to use appliances such as these in order to heat their home or start their cars in closed garages to warm them up quicker.

“Especially here in Iowa in the winter, we get into the issue because we have people who have gas-burning stoves or heaters inside the home that are inadequately ventilated, so they’re breathing in the carbon monoxide from that source,” said Joshua Radke, a clinical assistant professor of toxicology at the University of Iowa Hospital and Clinics.

Carbon monoxide can have very varied effects, because the severity of symptoms depends on the amount of gas in the air and the amount of time exposed to it.

“What we see clinically is a spectrum of symptoms. They can be asymptomatic, so have no symptoms at all, they can have mild symptoms — headache, nausea, some vomiting — and then they can have the serious symptoms, like abnormal heart rhythms,” Radke said. “One of the main effects is that you get decreased oxygen delivered to the tissues and most importantly the heart and brain.”

The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention estimates that approximately 500 people die from unintentional carbon-monoxide exposure each year, and that 8,000 to 15,000 people are hospitalized annually for non-fire related carbon-monoxide poisoning. Fortunately, there are very easy preventative measures that people can take to protect themselves.

The easiest is to install a carbon-monoxide detector in the home or in any place where exposure may occur.

“We always preach that people have carbon-monoxide detectors on site. What you want is something that’s going to alarm and that is battery-operated,” Noble said. “They will alarm if there’s more than a certain level of carbon monoxide in the air for a certain amount of time. It’s going to let you know that something is going on before you begin to experience severe symptoms.”

Homeowners should also make sure that all of the equipment and appliances that could potentially produce carbon monoxide on their property are properly maintained in order to nip any leakages in the bud, Noble said.

“You will always want to make sure that any of your fuel-burning appliances — your water heater, your gas stove, your furnace, your fireplace — are regularly inspected by a professional,” she said. “Especially for your furnace; we recommend you have that inspected at the beginning of the home-heating season, which is right now.”

The easiest of the measures is actually mandated by city law.

“As of November of last year, carbon-monoxide detectors are required in all homes in Iowa City, and in July of 2018 it becomes state law,” said Stan Laverman, the senior housing inspector for Iowa City. “It became evident that it was a pretty inexpensive way to protect a lot of people.”

Here on campus, plans are already rolling out to make sure that students stay safe.

“We’re in the process of working with the state on getting carbon-monoxide detection in the student rooms,” said Jeffery Aaberg, the director of facilities and operations at UI Housing & Dinning. “The new code requires that it has to be done within two years, but if things work out, we’d like to do it this summer so that we can be ahead of the curve instead of behind it.”

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