Cheryl Burt had the choice of buying a carbon monoxide alarm or the toy truck her son Zachary had wanted for his birthday. Nearly 10 years later, she still has the truck, but she lost her son -; and his brother Nicholas – to carbon monoxide poisoning.
“Every day I have to live with my decision,” said Burt, a Minnesota mother who lives with her surviving son Ryan. “I have to live with the fact that the loss of their lives was preventable by something as simple as a carbon monoxide alarm.”
As cooler weather prompts residents to fire up their furnaces, Underwriters Laboratories Inc., a not-for-profit product safety testing organization, is urging homeowners to purchase carbon monoxide alarms and replace the batteries in their existing ones.
Called the “silent killer,” carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless gas produced by incomplete burning of fuel. Sources of carbon monoxide in homes can include malfunctioning gas-fired appliances, space heaters and chimney flues. Each year, more than 450 people die from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most of these deaths occur inside homes.
“We knew we had been sick but we didn’t know why,” Burt recalled. “No one caught on that it was carbon monoxide from a faulty furnace. A CO alarm would have warned us long before our lives were in danger.”
Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include nausea, fatigue, headaches, dizziness, breathing difficulty and confusion -; but they are general enough to be confused with the flu, according to Dr. Jerrold Leikin, director of Medical Toxicology for Evanston Northwestern Healthcare in Illinois.
A carbon monoxide alarm should not be confused with a smoke alarm, said John Drengenberg, manager of Consumer Affairs for UL.
“A smoke alarm tells you to get out immediately, a CO alarm warns of a potential poisoning risk, usually long before our symptoms are apparent, which allows you time to get help,” Drengenberg said. “You need both life safety devices in your home.”
He recommends these preventive measures:
* Have a qualified technician inspect your fuel-burning appliances and chimneys to ensure they operate correctly and that nothing blocks the vapors from being vented out of the house.
* Test your carbon monoxide alarm at least once a month and replace the battery at least once a year.
* Make sure all family members know the difference between the sound of a carbon monoxide alarm and a smoke alarm.
* Never ignore a carbon monoxide alarm. If your carbon monoxide alarm sounds, immediately operate the reset/silence button and call your fire department or 911.
* If the alarm sounds, move to fresh air until the emergency services have arrived, the home is sufficiently aired out and the carbon monoxide alarm doesn’t reactivate.
* If your carbon monoxide alarm reactivates within a 24-hour period, repeat the steps above and call a qualified technician to examine your appliances and make any appropriate repairs.