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'Tis the Season to Avoid the "Silent Killer"

December 19, 2011

COLUMBUS, Ohio - Recently, an elderly couple died in their home near Cincinnati from carbon monoxide poisoning. Experts often refer to it as "the silent killer." Carbon monoxide or CO, its chemical symbol, is impossible to see or smell, but inhaling it can be deadly. In the winter months, CO is especially dangerous, because it's a hazard of malfunctioning or improperly-used fuel-burning appliances, such as furnaces, water heaters and - in the case of the recent deaths - even an idling car sitting in an attached garage that can leak CO into the home.

The Medical Director of the Cincinnati Poison Center Shan Yin, who is an assistant professor of pediatrics at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, says the symptoms of CO poisoning are non-specific and very subtle at first.

"They can be like you have the flu with nausea, headache, maybe a little bit of vomiting. People just may not realize it, and can easily pass away in their sleep."

To avoid carbon monoxide leaks, Yin says to ensure that all appliances are installed properly and to have heating systems inspected annually. Also, never use a gas appliance to heat your home and never operate a fuel-burning appliance without venting it. Yin says the most important thing you can do is to install a CO detector, which works similarly to a smoke alarm.

Detecting a CO problem is the most important priority. Yin says a carbon monoxide detector should be placed in the hallways outside each bedroom, and away from furniture or drapes. And he says the detector cannot do its job if it isn't properly maintained.

"We have seen people who, they have carbon monoxide detectors at home but then, they check and the battery's gone out; and you know, they actually get poisoned because they thought everything was okay."

Yin says if you suspect a carbon monoxide leak, it's important to get out of that environment immediately.

"If there is some suspicion or if the carbon monoxide detector goes off, they need to leave. I would call either the gas department or the fire department to check the house; and then, if they are having symptoms I would suggest going to the emergency room."

Nationally, 500 people die each year from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning.

Mary Kuhlman, Public News Service - OH