Provo, UT – Fall is here, and that means your chances of falling victim to carbon monoxide poisoning just got a lot higher.
Carbon monoxide poisoning can happen all year long, but along with fall temperatures comes the need for furnaces, portable heaters and indoor activities.
“Generally, that’s the first time people start their furnace,” said Eugene Worth, director of hyperbaric medicine at Utah Valley Regional Medical Center in Provo. “Hunters also like to take out their portable heaters to keep themselves warm.”
Todd Eckley, of Cedar City, learned how dangerous a portable heater can be when he was working on his house one Saturday. Eckley used a portable heater while painting inside his house in November 2006.
Although doors and windows were open to keep air flowing, Eckley said they were eventually shut because of the cold. The portable heater was shut off, but Eckley said that may have made matters worse.
“I guess if you shut (the heater) off, it’s worse than if you leave it on because it leaks more,” he said.
Eckley painted in the house all day and began to feel tired and lethargic. When someone asked him a question, he said it was difficult for him to piece together an answer.
“When I was painting, I felt like something was happening to me, but I thought it was just the paint,” he said.
The next morning, a Sunday, Eckley said he felt no better. He saw a doctor the following day, Monday. In two separate doctor visits, Eckley said he got no answers, and was told to monitor his condition for a couple of months.
“I knew something was wrong, and when he said two months, I thought ‘that’s ridiculous,'” he said. “I knew something was wrong with me.”
Eckley’s wife, Katie, consulted with his father, Dale Eckley, who is a registered nurse at UVRMC. After consulting with specialists, Dale Eckley told his son he may have carbon monoxide poisoning.
Dale Eckley traveled to Cedar City and he and his son returned to Provo the Thursday after Eckley noticed his symptoms. For the next three days, Todd Eckley went through treatments in a hyperbaric chamber before returning home to Cedar City.
The machine works by giving patients highly concentrated oxygen. The more oxygen the patient breathes, the faster his or her recovery will be, Worth said.
To help prevent problems like the one that happened to Eckley, Worth will be leading a carbon monoxide seminar at 7 p.m. on Tuesday at UVRMC, 1034 N. 500 West. He said furnaces with dirty flues and portable gas heaters in a confined space are some common problems that cause carbon monoxide poisoning in the winter.
Residents often bring a gas barbecue into their garage to cook away from the cold or they start their car while it is in the garage to warm it up. Even when the garage door is left open, Worth said, a heat barrier keeps the warm air in and the cold air out, while preventing the gas from escaping.
“Our general rule of thumb is, don’t even think about starting the car in the garage,” he said. “Back it out. And that solves the problem.”
Natural gas is odorless, but chemicals are added to help people recognize when they are in danger. However, Worth said, the smell of car exhaust or meat on a barbecue is not what people fear.
“Most people smell that and think of steak,” he said. “They don’t think of carbon monoxide.” A carbon monoxide leak in the home can be especially dangerous because residents do not always recognize the symptoms of exposure.
Although high concentrations of the gas can cause unconsciousness or death, a small leak in a home could continue for three to four weeks before the problem is discovered.
“You can have low levels of exposure and think you’ve just got the flu,” Worth said.
Symptoms to watch for are headaches and nausea, he said, and residents should pay attention to whether the symptoms go away when the person is farther from the source.
If a person feels flu-like symptoms when they are at home, but the symptoms go away when they are at work, Worth said a gas leak may be the cause. Although it is not always the case, some gas leaks in a home may not give off a smell to warn residents.
“They may not smell the natural gas because it’s going to be combusted in the furnace,” Worth said. “What you get is the byproduct, and that byproduct may not have the smell.”
The side effects of carbon monoxide poisoning can also cause devastating lifelong brain damage. More serious side-effects are similar to those of Parkinson’s Disease, Worth said.
However, some effects, including short and intermediate memory loss, can go away after from six months to a year.
Worth said victims of carbon monoxide poisoning may also exhibit confusion and memory loss. One Hispanic man visited the emergency room at UVRMC confused and speaking broken Spanish, Worth said. After treatment in a hyperbaric chamber, the man was speaking fluent English.
“He couldn’t speak his second language,” Worth said, “and he could barely understand his first.”
Worth said the most effective treatment for exposure to the gas is time in a hyperbaric chamber. UVRMC has had a chamber since May 2006, the only one between Salt Lake City and St. George.
With 30 percent of the blood stream loaded with carbon monoxide, it will take more than five hours for half the gas to be removed from the blood, while breathing normal air. With an oxygen mask feeding the patient 100 percent oxygen, that time is reduced to 80 minutes. A hyperbaric chamber uses 100 percent oxygen, and the chamber is filled with compressed air. The number of molecules in the air are tripled, and the patient receives an equivalent of 300 percent oxygen. Removing half the gas in the bloodstream takes only 23 minutes in a hyperbaric chamber, and 90 percent is removed in three hours.
An easy way to skip the standard three-hour treatment, and two more treatments in the subsequent 24 hours, is to use common sense around gas, Worth said. Never use gasoline products in closed areas, and limit exposure in the outdoors.
“Anything that burns a gasoline or a fossil fuel is a source of carbon monoxide,” he said. “Even if it’s outdoors at the lake on your boat.”
Inside the home, Worth said, it is vital to have a carbon monoxide detector with a digital display. It is impossible for people to gauge the level of danger, even if they can smell the natural gas in their home.
As for Todd Eckley, he doesn’t need to be told twice.
“We bought a carbon monoxide detector as soon as we got back to Cedar City from Provo,” he said.
Carbon monoxide seminar at 7 p.m. on Tuesday at UVRMC, 1034 N. 500 West in Provo