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Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

December is Carbon Monoxide Safety Month It has no color….no taste…no smell. It doesn’t burn your eyes or cause people to cough. However, it can be deadly and is the leading cause of accidental poisoning deaths in the U.S.

The poison? It is carbon monoxide or CO, a gas that kills by binding up the hemoglobin in the blood, reducing the body’s ability to carry oxygen to the brain and muscles. Death is related to both the level of CO as well as the duration of exposure. CO is produced by the incomplete burning of various fuels (coal, wood, charcoal, oil, kerosene, propane, and natural gas) used in cars, trucks, recreational vehicles, houseboats, portable generators, furnaces, charcoal grills, small engines, salamanders, LP gas heaters, stoves, lanterns, fireplaces, portable flameless catalytic heaters, and gas ranges. Cars left running in attached garages even with the doors open, portable generators in basements vented to an open window or located outside next to a window, and charcoal grills inside tents or homes have all resulted in CO quickly building to lethal levels in enclosed spaces. People and animals can be poisoned. December is National Carbon Monoxide Safety Month. This is fitting as December and January are the peak months for CO poisoning, which results in the unintentional deaths of almost 500 people in the U.S. each year and is responsible for more than 20,000 emergency room visits and greater than 4000 hospitalizations.

Some who survives Carbon Monoxide exposure can face permanent neurological damage. CO affects people differently. Children and adults over 65 years with health problems are particularly vulnerable. The initial symptoms of low to moderate CO poisoning are similar to the flu and include headache, fatigue, nausea, shortness of breath and dizziness. These slower developing symptoms can result in death over-time if mistaken for other illnesses.

High level CO poisoning, usually develops rapidly and includes progressively more severe symptoms including mental confusion, vomiting, loss of muscular coordination, loss of consciousness and ultimately death. The use of generators in residential spaces can cause this type of high level CO exposure to happen resulting in victims going to sleep and not waking up. This happened to a 16 year-old Buffalo teenager who lost her life sleeping near a malfunctioning basement boiler while at a friend’s house for a sleepover.

Workers are also affected by carbon monoxide poisoning. Workplaces may be weather sealed in winter. While internal combustion machinery such as gasoline or diesel-powered forklifts, air compressors, telehandlers, generators, pressure washers, welding equipment and petroleum-fired machinery produce CO are still being used. Although cold weather and power outages increase the use of risky alternative heating and power sources, carbon monoxide poisoning is not just a winter or storm-related concern. In recent years cases of CO poisoning have also been associated with residential utility shutoffs. This scenario is most prevalent in economically depressed areas and low income household where power disconnection results in families using unsafe means to keep warm or run their refrigerators.

SAFETY TIPS TO PREVENT CO POISONING:

  • Purchase and install CO alarms. Test them regularly and change the batteries twice yearly. A good time to do this is when you change your clocks to adjust for daylight savings time.
    • Ensure that heating systems and appliances are installed and serviced annually by qualified professionals. Chimneys should be checked and cleaned, as needed. When renovating a home or repairing a roof, make sure that tarps or debris do not block vents and chimneys. • Ventilate….ventilate….ventilate. Make sure that all fuel-burning equipment is vented properly. Don’t patch vent pipes in your home, cabin, camper, boat, or workplace with tape or gum
    • Remove vehicles from a garage immediately after starting them, even if the garage door is open. If you open the tailgate on a running SUV or similar vehicle, open the vents/windows to ensure air flow and exchange. If only the tailgate is open, CO from the exhaust could be pulled into the vehicle.
    • Ensure that vehicle exhaust pipes are not blocked in or after a heavy snowstorm. Make sure vents for the furnace, stove, fireplace and dryer are clear of snow.
    • Only operate portable generators or other gasoline-powered equipment, including portable flameless catalytic heaters, OUTSIDE of a home, garage, basement or any enclosed or semi-enclosed space. Position them at least 20 feet from a window, door or vent.
    • Increase awareness of symptoms and causes. Many people do not know that certain equipment, such as generators, are dangerous and can produce deadly fumes.
    • If symptoms suggest CO poisoning, get to fresh air immediately and call 911.

The brain injury law firm of De Caro & Kaplen, LLP has represented victims of carbon monoxide exposure and can provide legal representation to you or your loved one if a victim of carbon monoxide poisoning. 

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