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Is it the flu, or is it poison?

Air Force medical officials warn personnel to be aware of the dangers that can accompany the use of home heating systems during cold weather. The greatest danger comes from carbon monoxide poisoning. (U.S. Air Force illustration/James Borland)

Carbon Monoxide poisoning can be lethal. Washington state now has a law requiring homes to have CO detectors. (U.S. Air Force illustration/James Borland)

MCCHORD FIELD, Wash. -- Flu season is in full swing. But that headache, dizziness, nausea and fatigue you're feeling may not be the flu, it could also be an odorless, colorless and toxic gas - carbon monoxide.

Because it is impossible to see, taste or smell the toxic fumes, CO can kill you before you are aware it is in your home. At lower levels of exposure, CO causes mild effects that are often mistaken for the flu. These symptoms include headaches, dizziness, disorientation, nausea and fatigue. The effects of CO exposure can vary greatly from person to person depending on age, overall health and the concentration and length of exposure.

In Washington state, there is now a law in effect that can help you avoid CO poisoning - Washington Law RCW 19.27.530

As of Jan. 1, all buildings classified as residential occupancies are required to be equipped with carbon monoxide alarms.

Homes legally occupied before July 26, 2009, are not required to have the alarms until they are sold. Before the home can be sold, it must be equipped with the required carbon monoxide alarm.

"More than 400 people every year are killed from carbon monoxide poisoning," said Tech. Sgt. Darin Foster, 446th Airlift Wing Safety Office ground safety specialist. "Nearly all of these deaths are completely preventable with no major expense. The cost of a carbon monoxide detector ranges from $6 to $60 depending on how fancy of a detector you want."

Some common sources of carbon monoxide are unvented kerosene and gas space heaters; leaking chimneys and furnaces; back-drafting from furnaces, gas water heaters, wood stoves, and fireplaces; gas stoves; generators and other gasoline powered equipment; automobile exhaust from attached garages; and tobacco smoke

"Try to always remember that carbon monoxide is a poison and it may be in places that you would never think to be a threat. Places like on boats, in campers, and camp trailers, places we all love to be with our families. Take the extra time to make sure you have a carbon monoxide detector available when you are enjoying your recreational activities," said Foster.

When purchasing a CO detector, make sure it is Underwriter Laboratories (UL) Listed. When placing and maintaining the detection device, always follow the manufacturer's instructions. The proper placement of the detection devices is important for early notification. One CO detector should be placed outside individual bedrooms and an additional detector should be placed inside the general living area.

Do not put a CO detector near the storage area of cleaning chemicals because these can cause a detector to malfunction. Batteries for CO detectors should be changed annually at a minimum. The device beeping every few minutes signals that the battery is dying and the battery needs to be change immediately.

CO poisoning can be fatal at very high concentrations. Acute effects are due to the formation of carboxyhemoglobin in the blood, which inhibits oxygen intake. At moderate concentrations, angina, impaired vision, and reduced brain function may result. At low levels, the symptoms are much like those that accompany the flu.

Steps to Reduce Exposure to Carbon Monoxide
It is most important to be sure combustion equipment is maintained and properly adjusted.

· Keep gas appliances properly adjusted.
· Consider purchasing a vented space heater when replacing an unvented one.
· Use proper fuel in kerosene space heaters.
· Install and use an exhaust fan vented to outdoors over gas stoves.
· Open flues when fireplaces are in use.
· Choose properly sized wood stoves that are certified to meet EPA emission standards. Make certain that doors on all wood stoves fit tightly.
· Have a trained professional inspect, clean, and tune-up central heating system (furnaces, flues, and chimneys) annually. Repair any leaks promptly.
· Do not idle the car inside garage.
· Do install a battery-operated or battery back-up CO detector in your home and check or replace the battery when you change the time on your clocks each spring and fall. If the detector sounds leave your home immediately and call 911.
· Do seek prompt medical attention if you suspect CO poisoning and are feeling dizzy, light-headed, or nauseous.
· Don't use a charcoal grill, camp stove, or other gasoline or charcoal-burning device inside your home, basement, or garage or near a window.
· Don't use a stove or fireplace that isn't vented.
· Don't heat your house with a gas oven.

Never use a generator inside homes, garages, crawlspaces, sheds, or similar areas. Deadly levels of carbon monoxide can quickly build up in these areas and can linger for hours, even after the generator has shut off.