This article is inspired by a close call a friend of mine experienced recently. He and his family were spending the night in their RV and their little girl woke them up in the middle of the night feeling sick. She started seizing uncontrollably and so the whole family rushed to the hospital, where they were all diagnosed with carbon monoxide poisoning. It was so bad they had to spend a few days in a hyperbaric chamber, and they were told they very nearly lost their little girl. Thankfully they are all okay, but I thought we could all learn from their situation. I have included information about avoiding this dangerous situation in both our homes and RVs.
Carbon monoxide is a gas produced when any carbon-based fuel is burned. If carbon monoxide collects in an enclosed space, or if other conditions result in exposure to it, it can cause illness or death. The problem is that carbon monoxide is odorless and colorless, so it can collect in spaces without being detected by humans. As a result, about 500 to 1,000 people are killed in their homes each year by carbon monoxide.
There are many common sources of carbon monoxide in homes. Accumulation of the gas usually occurs when a blocked chimney, rusted heat exchanger, or broken chimney flue prevents the gases from being exhausted from the home. Carbon monoxide can also enter the home from an idling car or other engine, such as a generator or lawnmower, in the garage. Other common sources of carbon monoxide accumulation include fuel-burning space heaters and the indoor use of a barbecue. In addition, gas stoves and ranges can become a problem with prolonged, improper use.
In order to protect your family from this silent killer, you need to install a carbon monoxide alarm in your home. Carbon monoxide alarms have become widely available on the retail market in recent years. Modern carbon monoxide alarms can provide warnings for even non-lethal levels of this pollutant in your home. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends having at least one alarm in every home, placed outside all sleeping areas. Janie Harris, Housing Specialist for the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, states, “When considering the purchase of a carbon monoxide alarm, make sure alarms have a long-term warranty, and can be easily tested and reset to ensure proper functioning.”
Things you can do to protect yourself and family are:
1. Have your furnace checked and adjusted by a professional to be sure the burner and vent systems are operating properly and that the heat exchanger has no cracks.
2. Visually inspect the area around your furnace to make sure there is enough air flow for the burner to bring in fresh air. The furnace should not be in a tightly sealed space.
3. Inspect both the water heater and furnace flue for internal obstruction or leaks around the joints.
4. Test a gas water heater while the burner is on by holding a lighted match under the draft hood. A match that flickers downward or goes out may indicate an exhaust backflow. The flame of the match should burn upward toward the flue.
5. Burn fireplace or wood stove with damper open so that all combustion gases will flow to the outside.
6. Secure carbon-monoxide detectors and place at least one near the sleeping area, and others near the fireplace, furnace and near any other fuel burning appliances.
7. Select a detector that has Consumer Product Safety Commission and Underwriters Laboratories’ seals of approval.
8. If a carbon-monoxide detector activates, call the fire department. They have sensing equipment to determine where dangerous levels of carbon monoxide are located. Since home detectors are made to alert before the environment is hazardous, this gives the homeowner a chance to contact appropriate service personnel to “fix” the problem.
In RV’s, carbon monoxide gas usually results from:
• Exhaust leaks from a vehicle engine or a generator
• Improper use of portable gas powered heaters
• Someone else’s vehicle or generator when camping in close quarters
• Malfunctioning or unvented LP gas appliances
If your RV didn’t come with a carbon monoxide detector you need to purchase a battery operated carbon monoxide detector designed for use in RVs. Test the carbon monoxide detector every time you use the RV, and replace the batteries when you change clocks for daylight savings time.
• Inspect the generator exhaust system before using the generator, every time
• Avoid leaving windows down and roof vents open when in close proximity to vehicle and/or generator exhaust
• Follow all directions and safety cautions and warnings when operating gas powered heaters
• If you use a portable generator direct the exhaust away from the camping area
• Never use the range burners or oven to heat the RV!
• When cooking with the range burners use the range fan and always leave a window cracked open for fresh air and ventilation
Recognizing Carbon Monoxide Symptoms
The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are similar to flu, but without fever. They include:
• Muscular twitching
• Intense headache
• Throbbing in the temples
• Weakness and sleepiness
• Inability to think coherently
If you experience symptoms that you think could be from carbon monoxide poisoning, you should get out of the house/RV immediately and breathe fresh air. Next, go to an emergency room and tell them that you suspect you are suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning. Remember, carbon monoxide is odorless and colorless, so don’t ignore symptoms. You could lose consciousness and die if you do.