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Carbon Monoxide: A small molecular compound with enormous impact

JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. -- Unlike most things lethal to humans, it is unseen, unheard and nearly undetectable - until it's too late. It's not a stealth B-2 Spirit bomber or F-35 Lightning II fighter; it's a simple compound found everywhere on earth made of one carbon atom and one oxygen atom.

Carbon monoxide, or CO, is a colorless, odorless, poisonous gas that is a byproduct of inefficient combustion of fuels like gasoline, natural gas, charcoal and wood. Around the home, there are several appliances that produce this gas designed to vent the poison outside, where it can't pollute the air inside the house.

When those venting systems don't work properly, carbon monoxide can build up to dangerous levels in a home and harm or even kill the occupants in a matter of minutes.

"The easiest way to kill your family is not taking carbon monoxide alarms seriously," said Assistant Fire Chief Jason Haddock, 11th Wing Civil Engineer Squadron. "When these alarms go off, most people do not feel the effects right away, so they assume nothing is wrong. CO cannot be smelled or seen, that makes it a very serious issue. If for any reason the CO alarm goes off, they should contact emergency authorities."

In fact, according to Haddock, the majority of calls the Andrews Fire Department responds to that involve carbon monoxide are false alarms, but he much prefers to respond to a false alarm than to attend a funeral.

"Typically our most common calls involving CO are faulty detectors." Haddock said. "Base housing occupants, renters and homeowners alike should ensure they replace the batteries in their smoke and CO detectors according to the manufacturer's specifications."

Proper maintenance and attention to detail is key to preventing carbon monoxide poisoning. Taking the batteries out of an alarm that is malfunctioning, or letting the batteries die in a CO or smoke detector could be life threatening.

"The best way people can protect themselves is through maintaining their detectors properly and ensuring they always turn off any gas appliances completely," Haddock said.

When CO begins to affect the body, there are several warning signs that can be life-saving indicators if they aren't ignored.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, carbon monoxide exposure symptoms include headache, fatigue, nausea and dizziness. CO exposure will not cause a fever.
The severity of these symptoms will vary based on the amount of exposure, and the symptoms will most likely improve when leaving the CO-rich environment.

Knowing what to do when these symptoms occur is paramount to survival.

"The most important step to take when you suspect carbon monoxide poisoning is to take the affected person out into fresh air," said Maj. Michael Fea, 779th Aerospace Medicine Squadron Bioenvironmental Engineering Flight commander. "Even if the victim seems to recover completely, it is advisable for her/him to consult with their Primary Care Manger or seek emergency care to make certain that there are no long-term effects."

Common CO producers found in the home include gas furnaces, hot water heaters and stoves.

The 779 AMDS Bioenvironmental Engineering Flight offered these tips to prevent the possibility of CO buildup in the home:

- Don't use a generator, charcoal grill, camp stove, or other gasoline or charcoal-burning device inside your home, basement, or garage or near a window
- Don't run a car or truck inside a garage attached to your house, even if you leave the door open Don't burn anything in a stove or fireplace that isn't vented
- Don't heat your house with a gas oven.

"If you have a gas range or oven, remember to turn on your oven hood anytime you use it," Fea said. "In addition, hot water heater air intake openings should be kept clear of debris and clean."

In light of a recent incident on base regarding carbon monoxide poisoning in Liberty Park at Andrews, the company that manages on-base housing, is scheduling maintainers to clean all hot water heater intakes and filters in base housing in the near future, according to Denise Bowers, Community Manager.

To speak with a maintenance representative for base housing, call 301-599-1418 or email eckard@mmhusa.com. More information about Liberty Park can also be found at www.andrewsfamilyhousing.com.