Carbon monoxide a winter threat |

Carbon monoxide a winter threat

This First Alert carbon monoxide detector warns homeowners of CO gas leaks, which can be deadly.
John F. Russell

Carbon monoxide poisoning

Know the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning. At moderate levels, symptoms include severe headaches, dizziness, feeling mentally confused, nauseated or faint. Death is possible if these levels persist for a long time. Low levels can cause shortness of breath, mild nausea and mild headaches, and may have longer-term effects on health. Because many of these symptoms are similar to those of the flu, food poisoning, or other illnesses, you may not think that carbon monoxide poisoning could be the cause.

Play it safe

If you experience symptoms that you think could be from carbon monoxide poisoning:

- Get fresh air immediately. Open doors and windows, turn off combustion appliances and leave the house.

- Go to an emergency room and tell the physician you suspect carbon monoxide poisoning. If carbon monoxide poisoning has occurred, it often can be diagnosed by a blood test done soon after exposure.

Prevention is key

- Have your fuel-burning appliances - including oil and gas furnaces, gas water heaters, gas ranges and ovens, gas dryers, gas or kerosene space heaters, fireplaces and wood stoves - inspected by a trained professional at the beginning of every heating season. Make certain the flues and chimneys are connected, in good condition, and not blocked.

- Choose appliances that vent their fumes to the outside whenever possible, have them properly installed, and maintain them according to manufacturers' instructions.

- Read and follow all of the instructions that accompany any fuel-burning device. If you cannot avoid using an unvented gas or kerosene space heater, carefully follow the cautions that come with the device. Use the proper fuel and keep doors to the rest of the house open. Crack a window to ensure enough air for ventilation and proper fuel-burning.

- Call the Consumer Product Safety Commission (1-800-638-2772) or visit for more information about how to reduce your risks from carbon monoxide and other combustion gases and particles.

- Don't idle the car in a garage - even if the garage door to the outside is open. Fumes can build up very quickly in the garage and living area of your home.

- Don't use a gas oven to heat your home, even for a short time.

- Don't ever use a charcoal grill indoors - even in a fireplace.

- Don't sleep in any room with an unvented gas or kerosene space heater.

- Don't use any gasoline-powered engines (mowers, weed trimmers, snow blowers, chain saws, small engines or generators) in enclosed spaces.

- Don't ignore symptoms, particularly if more than one person is feeling them. You could lose consciousness and die if you do nothing.

Source: The Environmental Protection Agency Office of Air and Radiation.

With December comes the desire to shut the windows and doors, seal all the cracks from the threat of cold drafts and crank up the heater to keep warm during the long Routt County winter.

But be careful not to shut up the house too tight, warns Bob Major, vice president of Major Heating. Proper ventilation can save lives from carbon monoxide poisoning.

On Friday, a family of four from Denver was found dead in an Aspen home, the victims of apparent carbon monoxide poisoning. Friends discovered the Lofgren family, with father Parker, mother Caroline, and children Owen, 10, and Sophie, 8, after they spent the night in a house with no carbon monoxide detector.

Initial reports from the scene showed high levels of the gas coming from a malfunctioning gas heater and snowmelt system, according to The Aspen Times.

Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless and non-irritating gas that causes fatigue and nausea. It is created when a fuel source – propane, kerosene, wood or gas, among others – does not fully burn. The carbon monoxide then replaces oxygen in the air, leading to sickness and suffocation.

Major said poorly installed and maintained equipment, along with blocked exhaust routes, are the biggest risk factors he sees in Steamboat homes.

“What happens a lot in the mountains is the snow will rip the flues off,” he said. “The flue gas naturally wants to vent up and out the flue pipe, so if the snow or an ice dam comes down and crushes the flue, it pinches it so it can’t vent.”

That means the gas escapes by other means – through the house.

Propane tanks that almost are empty also cause an excess of carbon monoxide, Major said. If the flame becomes yellow or soot begins to build up near the exhaust pipes, the flue can become blocked.

Even more than these concerns, however, Major said it’s important to ensure all equipment is installed properly and that air vents remain open.

Major and his team were inspecting a new $5 million house in Aspen two weeks ago when they noticed the exhaust vent wasn’t hooked up on a heating unit, dumping the gas back into the house.

Homeowners also can be tempted to stop up vents that allow cold air into the house, but those are used to allow airflow through the house, keeping the carbon monoxide levels low.

“It’s more having the qualified people take care of your system, who know what they’re doing,” Major said.

Steamboat’s response

Another key component is a carbon monoxide detector, said Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue public education coordinator Deb Funston.

Alarms can be purchased for $19.99 to $59.99 at Ace at the Curve and $19.97 to $46.17 at Wal-Mart. The more expensive versions feature digital readouts and often can detect smoke, as well. The most expensive version at Ace also includes an alarm for explosive gas.

Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue responds to about 50 carbon monoxide alarms a year, Funston said, but there have been no deaths blamed on carbon monoxide in several years.

“We don’t get a lot of poisonings here, or at least we haven’t, so that’s either a combination of not having a lot of alarms here or we’re not having a lot of problems,” she said.

Funston said the resort nature of Steamboat could help ensure safety because of the maintenance crews that service many mountainside condominiums and houses.

“The maintenance people at all these various resort communities are constantly checking that sort of stuff. I think that adds to the safety of our community,” she said.

In 2004, a group of hunters were treated for carbon monoxide poisoning after using a portable cooking stove inside a tent in Routt County. One man woke up sick in the night and dragged his companions outside the tent to safety.

In 2002, three coaches and 10 members of the Roaring Fork High School girls basketball team became sick from carbon monoxide poisoning in a rented duplex in Steamboat Springs. The team recovered quickly in Yampa Valley Medical Center.

According to the most recent figures provided by the Consumer Products Safety Commission, there were an estimated 167 deaths caused by unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning in the United States in 2004. Cars idling in garages that lacked ventilation caused most of the deaths.

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