We can’t forget to monitor carbon monoxide

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On Oct. 7, 2012 a preventable tragedy happened at a local apartment building. A resident called 911 because the carbon monoxide alarm was going off and the family was not feeling well.

Multiple alarms were sounding, and the fire department found two unconscious men in a unit that did not have an alarm. One man was dead at the scene, while the other was hospitalized in critical condition. Nine families were displaced while repairs were made.

Was this an isolated incident? Was it a freak accident? Actually, carbon monoxide poisoning is the leading cause of poison-related death in the United States.

Carbon monoxide poisoning occurs when this odorless and colorless gas escapes from fuel-burning appliances and becomes trapped in enclosed spaces. Poisonings from CO are often caused by faulty furnaces, by improperly operating portable generators or by using other fuel-burning devices indoors.

Most unintentional poisonings occur in the home. Almost half of victims are asleep at the time of poisoning. Because low concentrations of CO cause fatigue in healthy people, their tendency is often to “go lie down,” a potentially fatal move.

At higher CO concentrations, people experience impaired vision and coordination, headaches, dizziness, confusion or nausea. These flu-like symptoms often clear up after leaving home. Current research indicates that even when victims recover, there are lasting health impacts to the brain and central nervous system.

Unless suspected, CO poisoning can be difficult to diagnose because the symptoms mimic those of other illnesses. People who are sleeping or intoxicated can die from CO poisoning before ever experiencing symptoms.

According to public health experts, fatal cases are grossly underreported or misdiagnosed by medical professionals. Therefore, the precise number of individuals who have suffered from CO intoxication is not known.

We do have several good indications of just how common CO problems are:

In 2011, Colorado Springs Utilities crews responded to 1,800 carbon monoxide calls and worked around-the-clock to protect customers from CO dangers.

Energy Resource Center technicians discovered heater or venting problems in 22 percent of homes inspected.

First responders treated people daily through the heating season.

Carbon monoxide poisoning affects people at all socioeconomic levels and in all types of housing. I know three families, all of whom are quite successful, who have survived a carbon monoxide incident in their home. Each credit their carbon monoxide detector with saving their lives.

Death or serious illness can be avoided with these simple precautions:

Install battery-operated CO detectors in the home. If CO poisoning occurs, homes without detectors are likely to have CO levels nearly five times higher than homes with detectors by the time of emergency response.

Have heating systems, including chimneys and vents, inspected and serviced annually by a trained service technician. The appliance itself may be working, but the flue gases must also be exiting the home.

Keep portable generators more than 20 feet from the home and follow the manufacturers’ safety directions.

In Colorado Springs we have recently created the Carbon Monoxide Task Force, working together to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning deaths.

Initiated by El Paso County Health, the Energy Resource Center and the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments, this diverse group includes representatives from 20 local organizations. By joining together we are doing more to prevent deaths than we can through our individual efforts.

The task force has partnered with local media to educate the public about the dangers of CO and the need for every home to have a CO detector. They are also making detectors available free of charge for households that qualify for COPE assistance. Find more details at www.erc-co.org.

The Carbon Monoxide Task Force is yet another example of how the Colorado Springs community is leading the nation in some important cooperative ventures. At our December meeting an interested party from the Denver metro area attended to explore how they can create a similar effort up there.

As we saw last summer with the Waldo Canyon fire, this community rallies when there is a threat to our safety or our quality of life.

Howard Brooks is the executive director of the Energy Resource Center, which helps families with energy audits, winterizing and other utilities issues.