A life-saving gift for 2014 [Editorial]

Our view: Recent cases of carbon monoxide poisoning show the necessity of installing CO detectors and following some common sense practices

December 29, 2013

For those looking for a fairly simple and pain-free resolution for the new year, here's one: Get a carbon monoxide detector for your home or business or both. If you already have one, perhaps it's time to change the batteries or at least test them.

On one single day this month — Thursday, Dec. 19 to be exact — a total of 10 people were taken to local hospitals after carbon monoxide leaks in their Baltimore County homes. The two incidents, both in Dundalk but otherwise unrelated, involved faulty furnaces. Neither household had a single carbon monoxide detector.

While smoke detectors have become commonplace, carbon monoxide detectors are less so. That ought to change. They can be found for as little as $15 or purchased as a dual smoke detector/carbon monoxide detector for less than $30.

Carbon monoxide is colorless, odorless and potentially deadly, causing symptoms that seem flu-like and are easily ignored. Each year in the U.S., about 170 people die from accidental CO poisoning from non-automotive consumer products, making it the most common source of accidental poisoning of humans. And the riskiest time of year for such incidents is November to February.

That's not only because of leaky furnaces — although that happens often enough — but because of many other forms of combustion found around the home. Gas ranges, clothes dryers and wood-burning fireplaces can also produce dangerous levels of carbon monoxide.

Recent studies show that carbon monoxide poisoning goes up after major storms like last year's Hurricane Sandy. Why? Because people use generators that are not properly vented or bring grills indoors during power outages. According to one report, there were 263 incidents of CO exposure on the East Coast during the week after Sandy, including three in Maryland.

Typically, people exposed to carbon monoxide suffer headaches, dizziness, chest pain, confusion and nausea. It results in 20,000 visits to hospital emergency rooms each year and about 4,000 hospital admissions, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ultimately, it can lead to cardiorespiratory failure, coma and death.

What's shocking, however, is that people don't take the threat more seriously, particularly in homes where there are infants and people with chronic heart disease, anemia and respiratory problems who are more likely to be harmed by the exposure. A $30 investment would seem like a small price to pay for peace of mind.

But it's not the only action homeowners and business owners ought to take. Experts warn that heating systems and similar appliances that use gas, oil or coal ought to be inspected by a qualified technician each year. It's also vital that they be vented. Chimneys should be inspected so they are not blocked, and horizontal venting pipes should be angled upward so gas will go outdoors.

Cars should also be inspected to make sure their exhausts systems are not leaking (incidents of carbon monoxide poisoning from cars are even more common than inside homes). And, of course, no one should operate a generator inside the home but outside and at least 20 feet away from doors or windows.

About half of states require carbon monoxide detectors in certain kinds of dwellings, including Maryland which is also one of only two states (Connecticut is the other) that require them in schools. Still, Maryland's 2007 law requiring CO detectors in new dwellings could be strengthened further to require such devices in all buildings, new or existing, heated by combustion or incorporating a garage where a vehicle might be left running. Baltimore County, for instance, requires them in all rental units, including those built prior to 2008.

Experts at the Consumer Product Safety Commission recommend that detectors be installed in hallways around sleeping areas but not in kitchens or near appliances where they might be set off too easily. Should a detector's alarm sound, residents should exit into fresh air and call 911 rather than seek to find the source of the carbon monoxide.

The devices may not be the most exciting gift to present a loved one in 2014, but they may be one of the most valuable.

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