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Danger of carbon monoxide poisoning rises in winter

As temperatures drop, the danger of carbon monoxide poisoning begins to rise. Nearly half of all accidental carbon monoxide deaths occur in January, February and March.

Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas that can be released from poorly working or unvented furnaces or gasoline-powered tools and equipment, such as portable generators, ATVs and chain saws. Outdoor equipment such as portable generators and heaters can create dangerous levels of CO when used in dormitories, cabins, sheds and other enclosed buildings. Even with the doors and windows open, these spaces can trap CO and allow it to quickly build to lethal levels.

Church Mutual recommends having all furnaces, gas stoves and fireplaces checked annually by a qualified professional to verify they are working properly and have adequate ventilation. Flue pipes should be inspected for rust holes, poor pipe connections and blockage, such as a bird's nest. Gas appliances such as ranges or ovens should never be used to heat buildings.

The following signs could indicate a CO problem:

  • Streaks of soot around fuel-burning appliances

  • Excess moisture found on windows, walls or other cold surfaces

  • Excessive rust on flue pipes, other pipe connections or appliance jacks

  • Orange or yellow flames (should be blue) in your combustion appliances

  • Small amounts of water leaking from the base of the chimney vent or flue pipe

  • Damaged or discolored bricks at the top of your chimney

The health effects of breathing in carbon monoxide depend on the concentration of CO in the air, duration of exposure and health status of the exposed person. For most people, the first signs of exposure to low concentrations of CO include mild headache and breathlessness with moderate exercise. People with heart disease are more likely to be affected by CO, even at low concentrations.

Continued exposure can lead to flu-like symptoms, including more severe headaches, dizziness, tiredness and nausea that could progress to confusion, irritability and impaired judgment, memory and coordination. CO is called the "silent killer" because if the early signs are ignored, a person could lose consciousness and become unable to escape to safety. Under certain conditions, lethal concentrations of CO have occurred within 10 minutes in the confines of a closed garage with a car engine running inside or when a portable generator is used in or near a home.

A carbon monoxide detector is one of the most important devices you can use to protect yourself, your family members, guests and employees from accidental poisoning. Church Mutual recommends installing CO detectors in all residential units, cabins and dorms that are equipped with gas-fueled heating or cooking units.

Carbon monoxide detectors work much like smoke alarms. They are designed to sound alerts warning occupants of high levels of carbon monoxide. Detectors are no substitute for proper maintenance and safe use of tools and equipment that can produce carbon monoxide.

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