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Carbon Monoxide: The Invisible Killer

By TSgt. Kyle R. Augsburger | Jan. 10, 2020

JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska —

With the lowest temperatures since 2017 hitting Anchorage and JBER, people are trying to find ways to heat their homes, garages and other occupiable spaces. This increases the risk for carbon monoxide exposure, depending on how the heating is accomplished.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) unintentional carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning accounts for 20,000 emergency room visits, 4,000 hospitalizations and more than 400 deaths in the United States every year.  Carbon monoxide is an invisible, odorless, colorless gas created when fuels burn incompletely.  Common sources of carbon monoxide are vehicles, furnaces, dryers, fireplaces, water heaters, and grills.

A University of Alaska Fairbanks carbon monoxide fact sheet identifies several factors that contribute to CO emergencies in Alaska during winter: smaller homes, winterizing home slowing air flow, alternate heat sources, using portable generators and spending more time indoors.  These factors give Alaska some of the nation’s highest carbon monoxide-related fatality rates.

Anchorage Daily News (ADN) released a news article February 21, 2017 reporting the death of an 18 year old and seven injured from carbon monoxide.  The cause of the CO was determined to be heating system boiler in the garage. 

You can prevent carbon monoxide poisoning by:

  • Ensuring vents for fireplace, stove, furnace, and dryer are not blocked by snow or debris.
  • Have your appliances serviced by a qualified technician every year.
  • Use grills, outdoor fireplaces, smokers, and other gasoline or charcoal-burning devices outside and here at JBER they must be at least 10 feet away from structures.  Never, ever use a combustible engines without proper ventilation.
  • Install carbon monoxide detectors outside of sleeping areas and on each floor of your home.  This also applies to all tents with cooking or heating by means of fuel-fired equipment during field exercises.
  • Test carbon monoxide detectors monthly and replace batteries twice a year during spring and fall time changes.
  • Replace carbon monoxide detectors according to manufacturer’s instructions. (Normally 5-7 year lifespan) Three common types of detectors are battery operated, plug in and smoke/CO combination alarm.

If you think you are experiencing CO poisoning the signs and symptoms are: headache, dizziness, weakness, upset stomach, vomiting, chest pain, and confusion.  The higher the concentration of CO the quicker symptoms will appear and can cause loss of consciousness and death.  People that are sleeping, drunk, under the influence of medications or drugs can die from CO before they display symptoms or wake up.

How to respond to a carbon monoxide alarm or suspected poisoning:

  • Evacuate the home and move to fresh air.
  • Do not ventilate the area because this will make locating the cause more difficult.
  • Account for everyone in the home.
  • Call for help after moving to fresh air and wait for emergency personnel.

For additional information regarding carbon monoxide or other fire safety tips contact the Fire Prevention Office at 384-5555.