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November 27, 2000


With the unusually cold weather recently experienced in San Diego County heating systems have been restarted. Don’t let dangers go undetected.

Carbon monoxide, often referred to by its chemical symbol CO, is a colorless, odorless, poisonous gas produced by the incomplete burning of carbon-based fuels, such as natural gas, propane, coal, oil, methane, gasoline, charcoal or wood. During normal combustion, harmless carbon dioxide gas is produced mostly, with tiny amounts of CO. However, when there is not enough oxygen for the fuel to burn well, carbon monoxide is produced in greater amounts, often times enough to be deadly. The most common sources of CO around the house are non-electrical room heaters, furnaces, ranges and water heaters, as well as charcoal grills, fireplaces and automobiles.

The improper operating of appliances can produce high concentrations of carbon monoxide. Appliances in good working condition produce little CO but a running automobile or lawn mower can seep CO into a house from an attached garage.

“Carbon monoxide replaces oxygen in the blood, and can get to the brain and heart. This may cause neurological damage or cardiac symptoms or even death,” said Jake Jacoby, M.D., Emergency Department and associate director of Hyperbaric Medicine.

Symptoms of CO poisoning are similar to those of flu--headaches, fatigue, nausea and dizziness. Because of this, CO poisoning sometimes is difficult for physicians to diagnose explained Dr. Jacoby.

Low-level exposure to CO over a prolonged period of time can be just as harmful as high concentrations over a short period of time. Infants and children are especially at risk because their small bodies accumulate the gas faster than in adults. Seniors with coronary problems and unborn children are also at increased risk of CO poisoning.

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