Housing and carbon monoxide concerns

It’s not just older furnaces that can produce the colorless, odorless deadly gas.

Off-campus housing has its own set of risks and benefits; I know from my son’s experiences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The cost is substantial even with an older house and sharing expenses with housemates. Safety, however, shouldn’t have to be a concern.

When one of my son’s friends was diagnosed with chronic carbon monoxide poisoning from the furnace in her rented old house near the Madison campus, my antenna shot up: Could any of my patients at Boynton Health Service or any of the University students living in older rentals be at risk?

The answer is yes! The 2004 University student survey by the health promotion department at Boynton Health Service revealed that 97.1 percent of students knew their residence had a smoke detector, but only 27.9 percent knew they had a carbon monoxide detector. Equally important is whether the detectors are functioning.

It’s not just older homes with older furnaces that can produce this deadly gas. Any fuel-burning heat source not properly functioning or ventilated can be the culprit. Car exhaust, kerosene heaters in ice-fishing houses, fireplaces, snowmobiles, boats and gas appliances are potential sources.

Acute carbon monoxide poisoning can kill in as little as 10 minutes as the carbon monoxide molecule replaces oxygen in the blood. The recent deaths of the miners in West Virginia were tragic examples of this. Chronic low-grade exposure to carbon monoxide can cause a flu-like illness and eventually death. Typically, carbon monoxide causes headaches, dizziness, confusion, irritability and impaired mental skills, but not the fever or muscle aches that are experienced in a flu-like illness. If you feel better when you are away from your residence or if your housemates are having similar symptoms, that’s another clue of poisoning.

We at Boynton think this is a problem and have started a carbon monoxide awareness campaign including the sale of carbon monoxide detectors in our pharmacy. They are being sold for $20 to anyone (students, staff members, others). Making sure your residence, whether new or old, has a properly working heat source with ventilation is equally important.

For information on carbon monoxide poisoning from the Minnesota Department of Health, check this Web site: www.health.state.mn.us/divs/eh/indoorair/co/.

Carol Nelson is a doctor at Boynton Health Service. Please send comments to [email protected].