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COLUMN: Hurricane Sandy reminds all of importance of fire, CO alarms

— The New York state Health Commissioner recently urged residents impacted by Hurricane Sandy to be aware that carbon monoxide (CO) can result from the improper use of alternate power sources. Poisonings from CO are often caused by faulty furnaces, improperly operating portable generators or using other fuel-burning devices indoors. With so many millions of people without power in the wake of the hurricane, many were using generators. Poisoning occurs when CO – an odorless, colorless and tasteless gas – escapes from fuel-burning appliances and becomes trapped in enclosed spaces.

With the heating season upon us, it’s important we all take precautions and protect your homes against carbon monoxide poisoning. If heating sources are not properly vented, carbon monoxide can collect in your house and often, you may not know it before it’s too late.

Carbon monoxide prevents the body from getting oxygen. It’s known as the silent killer. According to the State Health Department, the initial symptoms of CO poisoning can be mistaken for flu symptoms. One clue that it might be CO poisoning is symptoms occur or get worse shortly after turning on a fuel-burning device (e.g., generator, vehicle, tool). Another clue is more than one person in the home becomes sick at the same time (it usually takes several days for the flu to pass from person to person). Another clue is symptoms are brought on by being in a certain location and go away soon after leaving the area.

Age and general health may affect susceptibility to CO poisoning. Even low levels of CO can present a health risk to sensitive populations. These include the elderly, infants, the unborn, those with anemia or those with heart or breathing problems.

If you suspect CO poisoning, leave the area to get fresh air. Leave doors open as you exit. Contact the fire department and the gas company or heating contractor outside the home. Remember that you cannot smell CO and, as symptoms of CO poisoning increase, you may become confused and less capable of making decisions that could save your life.

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