Real Estate Wonk: Don't let your home poison you

December 30, 2010|By Jamie Smith Hopkins, The Baltimore Sun | Baltimore Sun reporter

From the Real Estate Wonk blog:

Here's a heartfelt plea in light of the recent spate of carbon monoxide deaths: Don't become the next statistic.

CO can kill when appliances that burn fuel -- gas, oil, wood, etc. -- are used improperly or stop working well, or when a car is left to idle in an enclosed space, the Environmental Protection Agency says. Because it's odorless, the only warning you'll get is the symptoms that develop as you're being poisoned.

"At moderate levels, you or your family can get severe headaches, become dizzy, mentally confused, nauseated, or faint. ... Low levels can cause shortness of breath, mild nausea, and mild headaches, and may have longer term effects on your health," the EPA says on its website. "Since many of these symptoms are similar to those of the flu, food poisoning, or other illnesses, you may not think that CO poisoning could be the cause."

Two people were killed and three badly sickened by carbon monoxide in a Baltimore rowhouse this week after leaving open the door of a gas oven that was turned on, possibly to heat the second-floor apartment.

Carbon monoxide, apparently from a faulty furnace, killed two others in Pikesville earlier in the month.

And eight people were hospitalized after CO exposure in Pigtown yesterday, though fortunately they appear to have escaped serious injury.

Here are some steps you can take to reduce your chances of running afoul of this silent killer:

Usually the first thing people suggest is buying carbon-monoxide detectors and putting them throughout your home. The EPA, however, seems pretty unenthusiastic about the devices. They aren't foolproof, and the quality varies pretty dramatically, the agency says, so do some research before buying and don't let them "lull you into a false sense of security."

Here's what it suggests as higher priorities:

DO have your fuel-burning appliances -- including oil and gas furnaces, gas water heaters, gas ranges and ovens, gas dryers, gas or kerosene space heaters, fireplaces, and wood stoves -- inspected by a trained professional at the beginning of every heating season. Make certain that the flues and chimneys are connected, in good condition, and not blocked.

DO choose appliances that vent their fumes to the outside whenever possible, have them properly installed, and maintain them according to manufacturers’ instructions.

DO read and follow all of the instructions that accompany any fuel-burning device. If you cannot avoid using an unvented gas or kerosene space heater, carefully follow the cautions that come with the device. Use the proper fuel and keep doors to the rest of the house open. Crack a window to ensure enough air for ventilation and proper fuel-burning.

DO call the Consumer Product Safety Commission (1-800-638-2772) at www.cpsc.gov for more information on how to reduce your risks from CO and other combustion gases and particles.

DON’T idle the car in a garage -- even if the garage door to the outside is open. Fumes can build up very quickly in the garage and living area of your home.

DON’T use a gas oven to heat your home, even for a short time.

DON’T ever use a charcoal grill indoors -- even in a fireplace.

DON'T sleep in any room with an unvented gas or kerosene space heater.

DON’T use any gasoline-powered engines (mowers, weed trimmers, snow blowers, chain saws, small engines or generators) in enclosed spaces.

DON’T ignore symptoms, particularly if more than one person is feeling them. You could lose consciousness and die if you do nothing.

That's a pretty long list. But even if you do just some of those things, it's better than throwing up your hands and merely hoping for the best.

Wonk reader pigtown shared a close-call experience last year:

"I had carbon monoxide poisoning a few years ago. I moved into a house that had been empty for several years and the furnace hadn't been turned on. When I finally began heating the house, the furnace would only be on for a few minutes and then go off.

I came home one day to find my dog unconscious and took him to the vet immediately, but when I got there, he was better. Finally, I called the HVAC company and they found the problem.

Good thing I'd just come back from living in the UK where I wasn't used to heat!"

jamie.smith.hopkins@baltsun.com

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