Send Letter to Editor
Everybody is at risk | Signs of CO poisoning
Be prepared and stay safe | Carbon monoxide facts
These don't mix
Overnight camping trips are supposed to be filled with fun and adventure. Occasionally, however, tents, campers, boats, shanties and cabins can be filled with a dangerous, silent killer. Last year alone carbon monoxide (CO) killed seven campers, hunters and boaters in Wisconsin, turning a season of outdoor fun to tragedy for affected families and friends.
The deaths resulted from five separate incidents involving small propane heaters, cabin and trailer heaters, a boat generator and a charcoal grill that liberated carbon monoxide. In all these instances, the victims were away from their homes on camping, hunting and fishing trips and died while they slept. These tragedies teach us that vacationers need to be more aware of the dangers CO can pose.
Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless and tasteless gas. Any heat or energy source that burns fuels such as wood, gasoline, charcoal, propane, kerosene or diesel, produces carbon monoxide. Unvented sources, like the popular "sunflower" or catalytic heaters, charcoal grills, kerosene heaters and propane stoves are examples of CO-producing devices that require extra caution. Since these devices do not have a vent to carry CO emissions outside, they should only be used for outdoor activities. Operating unvented devices in enclosed spaces is very dangerous. It is especially dangerous to heat with an unvented device in an area where people will be sleeping. CO levels can accumulate quickly inside a tent or a cabin without warning and if you're not prepared, the results can be deadly.
Vented heat sources, such as fireplaces, woodstoves, gas stoves, water heaters and furnaces, have chimneys or vents to carry CO and other combustion products outdoors. Though these appliances are generally safe for indoor use, they can also cause CO problems. All fuel-burning appliances should be inspected annually to ensure they are operating properly and the chimneys and vents are not plugged by snow and ice, or by animal or bird nests. Annual inspections are especially important at vacation properties where furnaces and fireplaces are used less often, animals have more time to build nests, vents can get blocked without notice, and vent obstructions may be more common.
Since you can't see, smell or taste carbon monoxide, you won't know that you are being exposed to it unless you have installed CO detectors. The first signs of poisoning – including headache, fatigue, dizziness, shortness of breath, nausea and mental confusion – are often mistaken for other illnesses. Symptoms of CO poisoning might also include weakness, stomach pain, diarrhea, blurred vision, chest pains and numbness. Sometimes people being poisoned by CO mistakenly think they are coming down with the flu.
If somebody is experiencing these symptoms and CO might be involved, take immediate action. don't assume that everyone will have the same symptoms at the same time. Individuals who have heart disease or breathing problems may be more sensitive to CO than others. Also people often receive different levels of exposure depending on their activity and distance from the source. People with higher exposures or underlying health problems often experience symptoms earlier than others and their symptoms can be more severe.
If you suspect a CO problem, move everyone outdoors immediately. Mild symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning usually improve within a few minutes after getting fresh air. If you experience severe symptoms, such as dizziness throbbing headache, or vomiting, you should seek emergency medical care. don't attempt to drive to an emergency room if you are feeling dizzy or sleepy – call 911 for assistance instead.
Daniel A. Daggett and Lynda Knobeloch are toxicologists with the Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services where they work on environmental health issues.