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How to protect your family from a 'silent killer' as temperatures drop

Posted at 11:14 AM, Nov 19, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-19 13:14:19-05

Winter is here and the temperatures are dropping, which means now is the perfect time to check your furnace.

Just two weeks ago Intermountain Healthcare clinicians treated a Clearfield family of five due to carbon monoxide poisoning after their furnace malfunctioned.

Dr. Lindell Weaver, medical director of the Hyperbaric Medicine Center at Intermountain Medical Center and LDS Hospital, says as temperatures get colder and Utahns turn on their heaters they need to also remember to protect themselves and their families from this deadly gas.

Oct. 27, 2020, Laura Nava went to bed with a slight headache and then that headache woke her up at 5:00 am. Her husband was also experiencing the same symptoms. Not realizing their home was filling with deadly carbon monoxide gas, they took some headache medicine and went back to sleep.

After sleeping through their morning alarms, they woke up very dizzy and their children ages 1, 4 and 7 began throwing-up. Trejo says her baby boy woke up looking very yellow and couldn’t even stand up in his crib.

After ruling out COVID-19 and other possible illnesses. Nava realized they also smelled gas in the home and called the gas company’s emergency line, prompting them to go to a local emergency department.

Subsequently, the whole family soon found themselves in two ambulances headed to LDS Hospital for specialized hyperbaric oxygen treatment.

At Intermountain’s hyperbaric medicine department, carbon monoxide-poisoned patients are treated with hyperbaric oxygen delivered by breathing pure oxygen while inside a pressurized hyperbaric chamber, to reduce the chance of permanent brain damage.

Although treatment for carbon monoxide poisoning reduces the risk of possible permanent brain or cardiac injury, disability can still occur. “It’s vital that people take the necessary precautions to prevent and avoid carbon monoxide exposure, as it’s the best way to keep everyone safe,” says Dr. Weaver.

Nava is now reminding all Utahns to check their furnaces and know the signs of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Carbon monoxide (CO) is often called the “Silent Killer,” because of its ability to take lives quickly and quietly. It’s virtually undetectable by humans in the United States, because it’s colorless, odorless and tasteless. In high enough concentrations it can kill within minutes and claims hundreds of lives each year.

CO is often produced from a faulty furnace or other heating sources inside the home. Exposures to CO also comes from automobile exhaust, small gas engines, and other fuel operated machines being used in poorly ventilated spaces.

“Nausea, tiredness, aches, and pains are just some of the carbon monoxide poisoning symptoms – they are very similar to the flu,” says Dr. Weaver. “If you suspect you have been exposed to high levels of carbon monoxide you should leave immediately and seek help.”

Technicians responding to the Trejo’s home say they recorded carbon monoxide levels at 250 PPM (Parts Per Million). According to the World Health Organization, the maximum allowable CO exposure is 9 ppm over 8 hours and 6 ppm over 24 hours.

There are several steps you can take to reduce your risk of exposure:

Schedule an annual check-up for your furnace and hot water heater. It’s important to have all gas-fired furnaces and hot water heaters checked by heating and air conditioning (HVAC) professionals annually. Furnaces can crack and exhaust vents can become obstructed.

Every home and business should have a carbon monoxide alarm. Carbon monoxide alarms should meet the UL2034 standard. Alarms with a digital display add an additional level of protection. It’s possible for carbon monoxide to be present in levels that will show on the digital display but lower than the level necessary to trigger an alarm.

If your digital carbon monoxide alarm detects even a low level of gas, have the area checked by the gas company or an HVAC specialist.

Anyone with prior CO poisoning, the young, the elderly, those with health problems, and pregnant women should consider a low-level CO alarm. These will sound an alarm with exposure to CO levels considerably lower than the UL2034 alarms.

Replace your carbon monoxide alarm every five years and consider bringing one along when you travel. Carbon monoxide alarms designed to sound at lower than that of residential alarms are available at www.coexperts.com.

Be aware of symptoms. Carbon monoxide poisoning can be lethal, sometimes with no advance sign of trouble. This is especially true when people are exposed during their sleep and are unaware or unable to call for help.