If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, immediately move the affected person away from the suspected source of carbon monoxide into a ventilated source of fresh air and call 911.
A Preventable Tragedy
When most people think of fireplaces, they instinctively think of feelings of warmth, coziness, or the calming and romantic ambiance that accompanies a fire’s glow and crackle. Nobody thinks of carbon monoxide poisoning.
But blocked chimneys or flues are actually responsible for many of the ailments and fatalities linked to carbon monoxide exposure.
We cannot see or smell carbon monoxide, but high levels of exposure can kill us in a matter of minutes. Carbon monoxide poisoning claims roughly 500 deaths each year in the U.S. alone. Many more people are sickened every year by low-level exposure. Although they don’t feel well, they commonly write off their symptoms as the flu or the start of a cold.
How Carbon Monoxide Kills
Carbon monoxide tricks the body into thinking it is oxygen. All the while actually prohibiting it from carrying oxygen to vital organs like the brain, heart and lungs.
This is because the protein hemoglobin, used by red blood cells to move oxygen through the body, actually prefers CO to oxygen. Whenever carbon monoxide is inhaled, the CO rapidly bonds with the hemoglobin in our red blood cells. This squeezes oxygen out of available space and prevents it from being transported throughout the body. This lack of oxygen quite literally sucks the life out of its victims.
Damage depends on the severity of the leak and level of overall exposure. Victims of higher-level exposure may suddenly collapse or fall into a deep sleep that they never awake from. Victims of low-level exposure may complain for days or weeks of ailments like a headache and some fatigue before the sudden onset of more serious symptoms like shortness of breath, disorientation, vomiting and loss of consciousness.
Particularly vulnerable are the elderly and children.
Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Is Preventable
Most carbon monoxide deaths are completely preventable, usually the result of homeowner oversight or negligence. Sadly, many people fail to take the necessary precautions to ensure their chimney is properly working prior to using their fireplace.
A number of seemingly harmless things can prevent proper chimney or flue ventilation. Here are a few common suspects:
- Autumn leaves
- Bird nests
- Spider webs
- Construction debris from home renovations or repairs
- Accumulated debris from previous fireplace use
To prevent the above, regular chimney maintenance efforts like the following are suggested:
- Use a wire screen to prevent debris like leaves and bird nests, or even animals like raccoons, from getting into the chimney
- Make sure the mortar between each brick is in good condition and isn’t cracking or flaking
- Get into the routine of having your chimney periodically inspected and swept at least once a year
- Regularly clean out ashes, soot and other debris from the fireplace
This relatively minor chimney maintenance, coupled with at least one carbon monoxide detector for every bedroom in your home, can go a long way to ensure the safety and health of you and your loved ones.