How to Prevent Carbon Monoxide Poisoning After an Emergency

An odorless, colorless gas, carbon monoxide (CO) can cause sudden illness and death if inhaled and every year, more than 500 people die in the U. S. from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning. When power outages occur during emergencies such as hurricanes or winter storms, the use of alternative sources of fuel or electricity for heating, cooling, or cooking can cause carbon monoxide to build up in a home, garage, tent, or camper and it can easily poison the people and animals inside such structures.


Fortunately, you can take a number of preventive measures to minimize and remove the chances of any type of carbon monoxide poisoning after an emergency, as discussed in this article.

Steps

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    Be aware of where carbon monoxide might come from. Carbon monoxide is often found in combustion fumes, such as those produced by small gasoline engines, stoves and gas cookers, generators, lanterns, and gas ranges, or by burning charcoal and wood. The gas may be caused to leak by rupture from movement of a building or equipment due to a storm, etc., the equipment being used may be defective, or there may be some other cause for the leakage of carbon monoxide, such as inadequate ventilation.
    • Carbon monoxide from these sources can build up in enclosed or partially enclosed spaces. Typical spaces where problems can occur include house rooms, garages, RVs, boats, tents, campers, garden sheds, marquees, etc. People and animals situated in enclosed spaces with little or no ventilation can die from breathing carbon monoxide.
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    Learn the symptoms. Part of prevention is noticing when the problem might be occurring. The symptoms are not clear and can easily be confused with other illness but awareness of the possible source contributing to poisoned air (such as a gas stove in the vicinity, or a stuffy room) may help you to pinpoint the symptoms. Moreover, the more persons exhibiting the symptoms, the more you should consider the possibility of carbon monoxide poisoning. Common symptoms include:[1]
    • Nausea and vomiting
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    • Confusion, light-headed
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    • Chest pain, fast respiratory rate
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    • Lethargy
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    • Dizziness
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    • A very red face (cherry red)
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    • Eventual unconsciousness in severe cases.
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    Ensure regular maintenance of all household items that have the potential to emit deadly carbon monoxide gas. Ensure that your heating system, water heater, and any other gas, oil, or coal-burning appliances are serviced by a qualified technician every year. Ask them to ensure that all valves, pipes, connections, etc., are in good condition and to replace anything that is faulty or worn.
    • If your home has chimneys, maintain both chimneys and flues in good condition and check regularly that they're not blocked.
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    After an emergency, talk to every member of your household or group about the need to be careful when heating and cooking. When an emergency occurs, everyone is likely to be on edge, tired, and perhaps even in shock or full of panic. Not everyone will be thinking straight and they may try to do things to keep warm or to heat up food that are not safe. As such, it is a good idea to gather everyone together to discuss safe methods of using fuels, heaters, cookers, etc., during and after the emergency situation. Some of the things to cover might include:
    • Avoid using a charcoal grill, hibachi, gas lantern, or portable camping stove inside a home, tent, camper, or any other confined space. Never burn charcoal in your fireplace in the house.
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    • Do not use a gas range or an oven to heat the home. The door of an oven is there for a safety reason.
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    • Keep generators operating outdoors and far from windows and open vents. Never run a generator, pressure washer, or any gasoline-powered engine inside a basement, garage, or other enclosed structure, even if the doors or windows are open, unless the equipment is professionally installed and vented.
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    • Keep vents and flues free of debris, especially if winds are high. Flying debris can block ventilation lines. You might need to do regular checks during storm weather.
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    • Do not sleep in a room where there is an unvented gas or kerosene heater.
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    • Never run a motor vehicle, generator, pressure washer, or any gasoline-powered engine outside an open window, door, or vent where exhaust can vent into an enclosed area.
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    • Never leave the motor running in a vehicle parked in an enclosed or partially enclosed space, such as a garage.
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    If conditions are too hot or too cold, seek shelter with friends or at a community shelter.
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    If carbon monoxide poisoning is suspected and you are feeling any of the symptoms above, consult a health care professional right away. When helping a suspected sufferer of carbon monoxide poisoning, watch yourself; you don't want to succumb to the gas as well.
    • Open windows to restore as much fresh air as possible. If this isn't possible, get the person to a place where the air is totally fresh.
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    • Clear the victim's airway to assist breathing. If you know what you're doing, you can administer oxygen but if not, seek immediate medical advice.
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    Install a battery-operated CO detector in your home and check or replace the battery when you change the time on your clocks each spring and fall. If the detector sounds leave your home immediately and call 911 or the equivalent emergency services in your country. Do not use the CO detector in place of any of the other steps – it is simply an additional layer of possible protection.

Tips

  • When using open fireplaces, make sure that the flues are open.
  • Generators, grills, camp stoves, or other gasoline, propane, natural gas, or charcoal-burning devices should never be used inside a home, basement, garage, or camper - or even outside near an open window.
  • Whether it is post-emergency, or any time, whenever you use an item that can produce carbon monoxide gas, always ensure that it has adequate ventilation around it.
  • A simple blood test can determine exposure to carbon monoxide.
  • Always turn on ventilation fans provided over gas stoves when using the stove.
  • Keep a close eye on children up to at least mid-teen age after an emergency. They are likely to be worried, anxious, and older children will likely try to do what they can to help you. Make it very clear to them that they must ask you first before switching on any appliances, lighting any fires or turning on any heat sources, and to not try to cook anything without your supervision.

Warnings

  • A victim of carbon monoxide poisoning may also fit and can cause heart attacks in those with heart disease.[2]
  • Carbon monoxide gas can kill within minutes.[3]

Things You'll Need

  • Well ventilated areas for use of stoves, heating, etc.
  • Good ventilation installed around stoves and heaters

Sources and Citations

  1. Dr Spike Briggs and Dr Campbell Mackenzie, On-Board Medical Emergency Handbook: First Aid at Sea, p. 42 and p. 154, (2008), ISBN 978-0-7318-1369-8
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