As temperatures outside drop, incidents of carbon monoxide poisoning are certain to spike unless precautions are taken.
The number of people treated for carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning at Utah Valley Regional Medical Center usually doubles during the fall and winter months because it is the time of year people turn on their furnaces, Eugene Worth, UVRMC hyperbaric medicine physician, said Tuesday night at a safety seminar. Nationwide, more than 50,000 people suffer CO poisoning and 3,000 people die from it each year.
Over his time as a hyperbaric medicine physician, Worth said, he’s seen his share of horror stories involving CO poisoning. The details and outcome of each scenario vary, but Worth sees a unifying theme in them.
“A little bit of ignorance and a fair amount of stupidity,” he said.
CO is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, invisible gas that is a byproduct of fossil fuels, Worth said. When people inhale CO, it displaces oxygen and binds to red blood cells. A person who inhales CO will experience flulike symptoms including headache, nausea and vomiting. If enough CO gets into a person’s system, he or she can go into a coma and die.
Most people get CO poisoning from their vehicles. In the usual scenario, Worth said, a person will start the car in the garage with the door closed and let it warm up for a while before leaving for the day. Others get CO poisoning by operating gas-powered equipment in enclosed spaces. Worth said his own son was operating a forklift with the doors closed when he started to feel nauseated.
“He decided after that he wasn’t gonna run the forklift in a closed space,” Worth said.
But there are other ways to get CO poisoning, Worth said.
Homeowners should have furnaces and other fuel-burning household equipment like fireplaces, water heaters, wood stoves and ovens checked once a year, and have vents and chimneys inspected and cleaned yearly.
During warm, calm days, boat exhaust, which contains CO, can linger above the water and poison swimmers. This past summer, a Flagstaff, Ariz., girl succumbed to CO poisoning and drowned at Lake Powell.
If a person gets CO poisoning, there are treatment options, Worth said. One is normobaric treatment, in which the patient breathes pure oxygen, but that takes about six hours to three days to flush the majority of CO from the person. Another is hyperbaric treatment, which can flush most of the CO from a person’s body quicker than normobaric treatment. But Worth said he’d prefer people take precautions to prevent CO poisoning altogether.
Worth said people can protect themselves by installing CO detectors, having fuel-burning household equipment checked at least once a year, never using fuel-powered equipment in a closed space and using common sense.
“Don’t be stupid,” he said to the crowd at the seminar. “I don’t ever want to see you for carbon monoxide poisoning.”