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Carbon monoxide: The silent killer

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Carbon monoxide is a gas produced when ordinary fuels like gasoline, kerosene, wood, propane and natural gas burn. When you breathe it in, the gas prevents your blood cells from carrying enough oxygen. Carbon monoxide is odorless and colorless, and in enclosed spaces like your home or car, it can kill you in minutes.

Every year in the United States at least 430 people die from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning, and about 50,000 visit the emergency room due to accidental poisoning, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Sedalia Fire Chief Matt Irwin wants people to be aware of the potential for danger and how planning and a simple device can prevent serious illness and save lives.  

“The most common source of carbon monoxide poisoning we see in this area are water heaters that are not properly vented or someone using a gas oven to heat their house by having the door open,” Irwin said. “We first recommend getting your gas furnace and water heater serviced annually to make sure they are burning and venting correctly, and second having a carbon monoxide alarm installed.”

Irwin said most exposures happen in the winter because people are using their furnaces again and that now is a good time for this annual inspection that can be done by any HVAC or plumbing company. Carbon monoxide alarms are widely available and are designed to warn of any unusual carbon monoxide build-up.

“There’s no way to check for carbon monoxide other than with a detector or an alarm,” Irwin said. “You can’t smell or see the gas, which is why it’s so dangerous. If someone lives in the city limits and suspects there’s a leak, they can call the fire department and we’ll come and check it out.” 

Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include headache, dizziness, upset stomach, vomiting or confusion and in severe cases, passing out. Older adults and children are most vulnerable to carbon monoxide poisoning.

“Babies and small children can’t talk or communicate if they feel unwell, and older adults are more likely to ignore signs and attribute symptoms to something else,” Irwin said.

The Sedalia Fire Department is doing its part to make carbon monoxide detectors available to the public by giving them away free of charge to anyone who requests one. The department annually gives away about 50 carbon monoxide detectors and 100 smoke detectors as part of its fire protection and education program funded in its budget and by a grant from Walmart. The carbon monoxide detectors cost the department about $23 each.

“This program is incredibly important to the safety of our community,” Irwin said. “Missouri is one of just three states without a statewide requirement for carbon monoxide detectors. We have about 40 carbon monoxide detectors and 70 smoke detectors on hand right now.”

Residents who need a device can go to fire headquarters at 2606 W. 16th St. to request one. 

“People don’t have to only live in the city limits to request one, people in the county are eligible, too,” Irwin said. “We simply ask for their name and address and limit one to a household.” 

The International Association of Fire Chiefs recommends a carbon monoxide detector on every floor of your home, including the basement. A detector should be located within 10 feet of each bedroom door and there should be one near or over any attached garage. For Irwin, the choice to have a detector is an easy one. 

“If you have gas appliances in your home or apartment, you should have one,” he said. “I have them in my own home. Appliances are man-made and they can fail. If that break happens at night when you or your family is sleeping, a detector will provide warning signs that can prevent a serious tragedy from happening.”

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