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Silent, but deadly

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Lately, I have nightmares of swimming through snow, my omniscient yoga instructor’s voice guiding me to take deep, cleansing breaths as my mind spools and the wind whips through my permeable lungs. I wake up gasping. My first thought is, I survived the night; I’m alive. Dying in your sleep has been lauded as the way to go, but I would prefer to be an octogenarian when that occurs. Frankly, I have a lot more adulting to do. 

A couple of months ago, I would have died in my sleep if I had neglected to replace the smoke detectors and carbon monoxide alarms when I moved into my new home. I was searing meat for dinner when the first alarm started blaring. Logically, I responded by removing the batteries and cracking the door for the smoke to escape. Food, water and shelter are essential for survival, but I didn’t realize that my house was being hotboxed by a deadly gas, out to smother me. It wasn’t until the second alarm went off that I grabbed my dog, kicked my cat outside, exited the house and called 911. Carbon monoxide is the leading cause of poisoning death in the United States. 

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Over the copious winter, a cornice of snow had developed on the eve of my roof, sporting an abundance of fanglike icicles. I felt relieved when my metal roof released the condensed snow with a satisfying jolt that shook the house. I was unaware that the fifteen feet of snow piled on the side of my house was blocking my boiler vent. When the fire department arrived, the CO levels in my home were hazardous. They turned off my gas boiler, rendering me without heat or hot water on the frigid winter night. I built a big fire, piled on the comforters, and surrounded myself with my CO alarms before bed. 

Pablo Herr, public educator with the Carbondale & Rural Fire Protection District, warns that carbon monoxide “will sneak up on you. You want to make sure you have a carbon monoxide alarm on every floor of your home, including the basement. You want to have these detectors within 10 feet of each bedroom door.” The garage is one of the most common areas of CO poisoning events, and having a CO detector near the garage door can save a life. 

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Carbon monoxide is virtually undetectable for humans. “It is tasteless, odorless, colorless, gaseous,” Herr said. Produced by the incomplete combustion of fuel, this deadly gas can be the by-product of everyday amenities such as gas ranges, fireplaces, camping stoves, propane heaters, charcoal grills and automobiles. It is vital to inspect gas appliances for blackening. If the blue flame has turned into an orange flicker, it is a sign that the fuel is not burning completely. ( Ensure your fireplaces are venting correctly and soot is not falling from the chimney.

Herr explained, “The scientific story is that the carbon monoxide binds to hemoglobin. It makes the hemoglobin molecules less able to bind to oxygen. Because of this, the oxygen transports from the blood and the release of the bound oxygen in the tissues is decreased. Then the tissue starts getting damaged from local hypoxia.”

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Children, pets, pregnant women and people with coronary artery disease are especially susceptible to CO poisoning. Herr mentioned that heavy smokers can tolerate higher CO levels in their bodies and can even be unknowingly experiencing a poisoning event. Organs with a high oxygen content, like the heart and brain, are especially sensitive to hypoxia. The CO alarm is the most effective way of monitoring this fatal gas.

Herr said, “Nowadays, there are these great [CO alarms] that have 10-year lithium batteries, and they will give you a little alert when they are running low on juice.” He still suggests checking your smoke detectors and CO alarms every daylight savings time change. He said, “Your first defense is going to be early alert. Get a CO detector. If you don’t have one, you can contact me.”

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I haunted my friends and family when I relayed that I could have perished in my sleep. After much shoveling and some springtime thaw, my anxiety is starting to subside. I saw my first crocus yesterday and exclaimed, “I survived winter!” To which my friend responded, “Yeah, just barely.”

Contact Pablo Herr at 970-963-2491 or visit for more information, or if you need a carbon monoxide detector.

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Tags: #carbon monoxide #Carbondale & Rural Fire Protection District. #Elizabeth Key #health #Pablo Herr #safety
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