"It's always better to be safe than sorry," said Sgt. Butch Johnston, of Phoenixville Fire Company. "Because carbon monoxide is tasteless and odorless, you can't detect it."
The gas, which can seep through cracks in doors and floorboards, is tasteless, odorless and invisible and can only be detected by carbon monoxide monitors and alarms. Exposure to the gas can be fatal in minutes, depending on the concentration; symptoms begin with headaches, dizziness and nausea.
According to Betsy Walls, of the Chester County Health Department, carbon monoxide replaces oxygen molecules in the bloodstream causing organs to suffocate.
"It doesn't take a whole lot," said Walls. "You may not even notice." Carbon monoxide is particularly dangerous because it can cause you to lose consciousness before you realize what is wrong and get help, according to Walls.
A byproduct of combustion, carbon monoxide is produced by appliances such as grills, stoves, car exhaust, heaters and furnaces. Poisoning usually occurs because of improper appliance use, outdoor items being used indoors or simply because there is not adequate ventilation.
"Carbon monoxide can start anywhere that fossil fuels are burned," said Johnston. The Phoenixville Fire Company recommends that residents have their furnaces and appliances checked annually, according to Johnston.
An estimated 67 percent of U.S. residents use either coal, kerosene, fuel, gas or wood as major heat source in winter. All of these products produce carbon monoxide when burned.
"People are so used to running things in outdoor air, they don't realize how quickly it builds up inside," said Kevin Stewart, environmental director of Lancaster office of the American Lung Association. Cooking indoors with grills, warming up the car in the garage or tuning up the lawnmower in the garage can be enough to create harmful levels of the gas.
Carbon monoxide (CO) kills more than 200 people each year and sends 10,000 to the emergency room, according to the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA). Unfortunately just over one quarter of American home owners have CO alarms according to the Hardware/ Homecenter Research Industry.
"In addition to hundreds of deaths each year, there are also thousands sickened," said Stewart. Symptoms, which include nausea and vomiting, are often mistaken for the flu.
"Anyone using combustion heat should install at least one continuously operating CO monitor," said Stewart. He recommends having the heating system regularly checked by a professional and installing one monitor for each floor, along with one in the sleeping area to wake up families. The carbon-monoxide monitor should be used in addition to a smoke alarm and should have a UL (Underwriters Laboratories) seal stating that it meet those standards.
In the event that an alarm does sound, residents should call 911 and evacuate, according to Sgt. Johnston. Fire company personnel will then pinpoint and eliminate the source of the gas, ventilate residence and send people who were exposed to the hospital.
Phoenixville Hospital's Community Health Education and Outreach Department deals with carbon monoxide as part of poisoning prevention in first aid training. Hospital workers provide first aid programs at churches, workplaces, in the hospital and schools.
A health program in conjunction with Phoenixville Public Library offers computer and Internet access as well as information on monthly health topics. Phoenixville Fire Company also provides information and programs to the public as requested.
Pregnant women's fetuses are at risk, along with children, who breathe faster and process the gas into their bodies' faster than adults. Elderly or those with chronic lung or heart conditions also have a higher risk because they have reduced air capacity.
Sears Hardware in Phoenixville, along with other department stores, hardware and online resources, carries battery-operated carbon-monoxide alarms costing approximately $40.
For more information about carbon monoxide poisoning, visit the American Lung Association at lungusa.org and Environmental Protection Agency's web site at www.epa.gov to view the "Winter Wise Tips" section. Phoenixville Fire Company's Church Street location can be reached at 610-933-9717.