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Avoiding Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Several people in Washington state have died from carbon monoxide poisoning in recent days, apparently attempting to stay warm in the wake of a vicious storm that left their homes without power.

They seem to have used unsafe methods to heat and light their homes

On The Early Show Tuesday, medical correspondent Dr. Emily Senay outlined several steps that can be taken to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning.

Senay explained that carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless gas that can cause sudden illness and death. It's found in combustion fumes from fire or anything that burns fuel — including vehicles, generators, portable stoves and grills, as well as household appliances such as gas ranges, furnaces, and home heating systems.

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When there's proper ventilation, which is most of the time, carbon monoxide doesn't normally cause problems. But if the gas builds up in enclosed or poorly ventilated spaces, it causes poisoning when the fumes are inhaled.

Among the measures Senay suggests to help you stay safe when carbon monoxide is being produced in your midst: Don't use a generator indoors, in an enclosed space like a garage, in a partially enclosed space like a carport or porch, or under a deck. Don't even run it outdoors in a place close to the house where fumes can get in through a window, door or air intake. Opening doors and windows or using fans will not eliminate the hazard.

Even when the power is on, Senay points out, people may be tempted to supplement their regular home heating systems with devices such as kerosene heaters and charcoal grills. These also are risky. Another danger comes when people don't maintain household equipment that's ordinarily safe. A blockage in the venting from devices such as furnaces, water heaters, stoves and fireplaces, also can cause a carbon monoxide buildup. So, inspect those appliances, and clean chimneys, vents and flues at least once a year.

Senay said symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include headache, fatigue, dizziness, nausea or vomiting and confusion. Be aware of enclosed environments in which carbon monoxide can build up, and seek medical help immediately if you or a family member starts having symptoms. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 500 Americans die from carbon monoxide poisoning in a typical year and more than 15,000 will need treatment at emergency rooms.

To provide an early warning of the presence of carbon monoxide, Senay urges that you install detectors in your home ... and be sure to test and replace the batteries regularly.

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