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Vanderbilt injury prevention experts urge use of carbon monoxide alarms

Feb. 23, 2023, 8:46 AM


by Jessica Pasley

Assumption can be a deadly practice.

Carbon monoxide is present in the air we all breathe, but when unsafe levels of the gas build up in the body, it can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning.

More than 420 people die every year in the United States from carbon monoxide poisoning, and thousands are sickened by the colorless, tasteless and odorless gas known as the “silent killer.”

Additionally, children are at higher risk for carbon monoxide poisoning, becoming sicker much quicker than adults because their bodies process the gas differently.

Thus, injury and prevention advocates at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt strongly urge the use of carbon monoxide alarms in all buildings.

“Don’t assume that there is a carbon monoxide detector wherever you are,” said Stacey Pecenka, MPH, manager, Trauma Injury Prevention Program at Monroe Carell. “Don’t assume your schools have one, or the home you are buying has one installed. Definitely ask about placement and if they are in working order.

“An alarm is the only way to know if there are dangerous levels of carbon monoxide present.”

Pecenka said it is also important to note that smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors are not the same thing.

She said that any appliance or heat source that uses combustible sources of fuel can generate carbon monoxide. So, the question is: Who needs a carbon monoxide detector or alarm in their home or place of business?

“Everyone,” said Pecenka. “Even if you don’t use gas appliances or heating sources, you still need a detector.

“When temperatures dip, people use alternative heat sources that could be damaging,” she said. “There are many ways that carbon monoxide can enter a home or place of business, especially during the winter months.”

Carbon monoxide is a byproduct of the combustion of hydrocarbon fuels which include propane, coal, gasoline and natural gas.

Other sources include room heaters, furnaces, charcoal grills, cooking ranges, water heaters, cars and portable generators.

Carbon monoxide can be safely vented most of the time, but misusing or not maintaining the sources can lead to unsafe levels in the air.

Signs of poisoning include headache, dizziness, sleepiness and nausea. If symptoms affect more than one person, a carbon monoxide leak or exposure should be considered. Those affected should immediately get fresh air.

Other tips include:

  • Put a detector on every level of your home or different ends of a one-story home and near sleeping areas.
  • Test the alarms monthly. Replace batteries if they are low.
  • Never ignore a beeping alarm.
  • Teach children how to respond if the alarm sounds.

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