Carbon monoxide, an odorless, colorless gas, is aptly called the "silent killer." Every year, it is emited from bad gas furnaces, fireplaces and other sources to kill between 300 and 700 people nationwide. Only last month, a 17-year-old Berkeley girl died as she slept when carbon monoxide from the heating system and a clogged heating vent overcame her.
Kim Roderick, a paramedic with AMR Santa Clara County operations, said she has handled several calls involving people who have suffered carbon monoxide poisoning.
She said many at risk are low-income families with no central heating. She recalled instances in which people were bringing their barbecues indoors to heat up the house, unaware of the dangers.
"The time it takes (to harm people) depends on the concentration," Roderick said. She said that in hemoglobin, the substance that carries oxygen to organs and tissues, one part of carbon monoxide has 250 times more "affinity" than oxygen. The gas combines with the body's blood to prevent the flow of oxygen.
Roderick said today's heating systems have good track records and stringent building requirements have seen to that. However, gas furnaces, although far and away the leading cause of poisonings, are not the only source. Others include automobile exhaust, clogged or blocked chimneys, rusted flues or vent pipes, improperly installed or malfunctioning fireplaces and appliances, and space heaters.
AMR officials noted the warning signs of carbon monoxide poisoning are dizziness, fatigue, headaches, nausea or vomiting, and irregular breathing.
Tips for preventing exposure are:
Have appliances installed according to manufacturers' instructions and building codes;
Have your heating system (including chimneys and vents) inspected and serviced annually;
Never burn charcoal indoors or in a garage;
Never use a gas range or oven for heating; and
Install a carbon monoxide detector, available at most hardware stores.