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June 12, 2013

The colorless, odorless and tasteless killer: carbon monoxide

by: Anne McGinness Kearse

As summer approaches and vacations begin, the tragic story about the alleged carbon monoxide poisoning in a Boone, N.C., hotel that recently injured one South Carolina mother and took the life of her 11-year-old son, brings to the forefront of my mind the importance of carbon monoxide safety and awareness. Serious injuries and death can easily occur in vacation rentals that have not been properly inspected, maintained or operated. Without proper maintenance and inspection, that inviting pool or hidden gas-powered appliance can suddenly become a silent and deadly killer.

In 2012, the State of West Virginia amended smoke detector and carbon monoxide detector laws to protect people in both residential and commercial settings. My hope is that these changes in West Virginia expand awareness across the country about the need for increased protection against carbon monoxide poisoning—a danger that results in thousands of injuries and untimely deaths each year.

Below is some information about carbon monoxide poisoning and symptoms to be on the lookout for this vacation season.

How Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Occurs:

Red blood cells pick up carbon monoxide (CO) faster than they pick up oxygen. When the air is contaminated with carbon monoxide gas, the body may replace the oxygen in the blood with CO. When this occurs, the body is deprived of oxygen, which can damage tissues and even result in death.

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Symptoms

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) carbon monoxide poisoning symptoms can include:

  • Altered mental status
  • Ataxia (lack of muscle coordination during voluntary movements, such as walking or picking up objects) and other neurological symptoms
  • Chest pain
  • Coma
  • Death
  • Dizziness
  • Headaches
  • Irritability
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Malaise (vague feeling of discomfort or uneasiness)
  • Nausea
  • Shortness of breath
  • Vomiting
  • Weakness

The CDC also notes that additional red flags associated with carbon monoxide poisoning include having a history of exposure or experiencing any of these symptoms without fever, as well as instances when multiple people are suffering similar side effects. Note that young children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of carbon monoxide inhalation and may exhibit poisoning symptoms sooner.

What You Can Do

If you are experiencing signs of carbon monoxide poisoning, the Environmental Protection Agency recommends the following:

  • Get fresh air immediately. Leave the house or indoor area immediately if possible, or open windows/doors and turn off any combustion/fuel-burning appliances (e.g. gas or kerosene space heaters, gas ranges and ovens, stoves, oil and gas furnaces, fireplaces, water heaters, clothes dryers, etc.)
  • Go to the emergency room, where CO poisoning can be diagnosed with a blood test.
  • Be prepared to answer specific questions from a physician about what your symptoms are, where they occurred, whether any other friends or family members experienced similar symptoms, what kinds of appliances were near you, etc.

If you are traveling this summer and staying in a rental property or hotel, you may ask the management about carbon monoxide detectors on the property and specifically ask that you not be placed in a room near a pool heater. You may also want to invest in a travel CO alarm, which are available through many online retailers. CO alarms, however, are not fail-proof and should not provide you with a false sense of security.

People who suspect they may have been poisoned by carbon monoxide should seek immediate medical attention and treatment. You can obtain additional information about carbon monoxide by contacting the CDC at http://www.cdc.gov/co/default.htm or by calling 800-232-4636. Also visit Safe Kids Worldwide for carbon monoxide safety tips.