You can't see, taste, feel, or smell carbon monoxide (CO). However, this deadly gas can make you very sick or even kill you. Over 5,000 people in the United States die every year after breathing too much CO. The signs of CO poisoning seem like the flu. Many people don't even know they've been breathing in CO. People who survive can suffer brain damage, lose their sight or hearing, or have heart problems. It is a major threat to your family's health. The good news is that you can prevent CO poisoning. This section will help you ask the right questions to find out if the air in your home is safe and healthy.
There can be so much CO in a burning building that breathing smoke for as little as one minute can kill you. Lower levels, such as from smoking, do not kill right away. They can cause many other health problems though. Children, unborn babies, people with asthma, older adults, or people with heart or lung problems are more likely to get hurt from breathing CO. But remember, CO harms even healthy people.
Where Does CO Come From?
Fuel-burning appliances use gas, oil, or wood to produce heat. If they are not working right, they can make CO. Most gas appliances that have been put in and taken care of properly are safe and make very little CO. Electric appliances do not burn fuel and so make no CO. Common sources of CO include:
• Gas and oil furnaces, boilers, and water heaters
• Wood-burning fireplaces and stoves
• Gas appliances like ovens, stoves, or dryers
Gas and kerosene space heaters Gas and charcoal grills
Cars, trucks, campers, tractors, and other vehicles
Gasoline and liquid propane (LP)-powered small equipment, including lawn mowers, snow blowers, chainsaws, pressure washers, and electric generators
Recreational vehicles, including boat motors, all terrain vehicles (ATVs), ski-boats, and generators in campers and houseboats
Blocked chimneys and flues
Breathing in low levels of CO can hurt your brain, heart, or other parts of your body. At high levels, the brain is so short of oxygen that you cannot think clearly. You lose control of your muscles and may be unable to move to safety. High-level CO poisoning can cause loss of consciousness, coma, and death.
There are simple but important steps to take to find out if your family is at risk for CO poisoning. The questions on the following page will help you do that. Page 27 will give you ideas of what to do to keep the air in your home safe to breathe.
What are the Signs of CO Poisoning?
People often think CO poisoning is the flu. That's because it can feel like the flu. Signs of low-level CO poisoning may include:
• Tightness in the chest
• Trouble breathing
If you smoke, you breathe in carbon monoxide and many other chemicals. If you smoke indoors, people around you also breathe the smoke (called second-hand or environmental tobacco smoke). Smoking can make minor health problems worse and cause major diseases like cancer and heart disease. If you need help quitting, contact the American Lung Association at 1-800-LUNG-USA.
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