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Caution is urged with Carbon Monoxide poisining

As cold weather has more people trying to heat their homes, those using fuel-based furnaces may need to be extra careful. Without proper care, furnaces or other gas-fueled appliances can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning and cause hospital visits or worse.

Produced from gas-powered machines, carbon monoxide is a hard-to-detect harmful gas, thanks to its odorless and tasteless nature. When too much carbon monoxide is breathed in, the gas can block red blood cells from receiving enough oxygen, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention FAQ on carbon monoxide poisoning. Large amounts of CO can cause a loss of consciousness and suffocation within minutes.

At first, the poisonous gas can cause people to feel flu-like symptoms, such as nausea, dizziness, fatigue and headaches, or feel light-headed and chest pains. After prolonged exposure or in serious cases, symptoms can worsen and lead to unconsciousness or death, said Lt. Paul Massarelli of the Baltimore County Fire Rescue Academy.

CO poisoning can be especially dangerous to children, elderly people, smokers and those diagnosed with lung or heart disorders.

Household, gas-powered machines, such as stoves, grills, furnaces or cars are the main causes for producing dangerous amounts of carbon monoxide, Massarelli said. Without proper ventilation or enough space, these machines can create an abundance of carbon monoxide to build up and lead to deadly effects.

Carbon monoxide has already impacted Baltimore County this winter. Last December, Baltimore County Fire Department received two calls in Dundalk on the same day related to CO poisoning.

A row house called the fire department when a seizure patient was unconscious, said Massarelli, but dispatchers noticed other patients had flu-like symptoms. After a test, they found the CO levels extremely high and evacuated the building. Later that day, the department evacuated another nearby building when they found high traces of carbon monoxide. All victims were released later with no long-term injuries.

Faulty furnaces caused both incidents, he said. The buildings did not have carbon monoxide detectors which could have easily fixed the problem.

The detectors, which work similarly to smoke alarms, alert a household when they detect a dangerous amount of the poisonous gas inside. They can be bought at hardware stores for $20 or higher.

"[Detectors] are the most reliable way to protect your household from carbon monoxide, and are simple, inexpensive and may easily save your life," Massarelli said.

They are so essential that Baltimore County passed a law in 2008 requiring all residences that use fossil fuel-based appliances install a detector. In 2009, they extended the law to include rented areas as well. According to the law, any building with gas-based machinery must have a CO alarm outside each sleeping area.

Owings Mills Fire Department Vice President Marci Catlett also encourages property owners to make sure all fossil-fueled machines not used in enclosed, small areas such as garages or attics.

"The best thing to do is to not use gas powered grills in your house or garage and make sure stoves and furnaces are well ventilated," Catlett said.

Because of the deadly nature of carbon monoxide, Massarelli recommends not taking any chances by getting gas-powered appliances inspected twice a year by a professional, such the Baltimore Gas Electric Company. Carbon monoxide detectors must also be checked. This process can be done by oneself and methods vary based on the type of detector.

In case the alarm goes off or poisoning is suspected, Massarelli said, the problem is too dangerous to deal with alone.

"If the alarm goes off, or multiple people have flu-like symptoms, just leave your house immediately and call 911," Massarelli said.

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