This flu season, your flu-like symptoms could be caused by influenza, or by another deadly but avoidable source.
"People need to make sure if they're feeling sick, is it the flu? It could be, but it could also be another underlying problem with CO," said Chief Ira Walker Jr., of Eureka Volunteer Fire and Ambulance Company.
CO, or carbon monoxide, is a colorless, odorless gas created by the incomplete burning of fossil fuels.
If you have a fireplace or an oil or gas furnace, it's likely there are trace amounts of carbon monoxide in your home.
While trace amounts aren't dangerous, concentrated levels of carbon monoxide can be deadly.
John Hall, of the National Fire Protection Association, said 676 people died from carbon monoxide in 2008. Hall, the division director for fire analysis and research, didn't have more recent death statistics, but said fire companies in the United States responded to more than 80,000 carbon monoxide incidents in 2010. That was an increase from 40,900 in 2003.
Hellam Township Fire Chief Fred Smeltzer said his company responds to a few carbon monoxide calls each year.
"We haven't had any incidents this year at all, which tells us people may be taking better precautions," Smeltzer said Thursday.
Some of the calls are legitimate, with high levels of carbon monoxide in the home.
But, Smeltzer said, "usually it's human error, unclean detectors or bad batteries. It's far better to have a bad battery call than it is to have a family in trouble."
York Fire/Rescue Services acting chief David Michaels said his department gets calls throughout the year. "Probably more this time of year as we get into the heating season," he said.
Like Hellam Township, some calls in York are false alarms.
"But there have been some real emergencies where we've removed some unconscious people from the home where it's been on the verge of being a fatality," Michaels said.
Of the legitimate calls, all three chiefs said venting issues with heating systems are a leading cause of the danger.
"What we'll find is if they have a hot water heater, a furnace ... the venting system isn't sealed," Michaels said.
All three chiefs said not enough residents have carbon monoxide detectors installed.
"I think what you're finding is there are a lot of people who just don't have them," Michaels said.
"I'm sure (carbon monoxide detectors) are a very undersold item," Smeltzer said, adding "We have spent years trying to convince people ... of the importance of smoke detectors."
"We try to get the word out" about carbon monoxide detectors, Walker said. "I don't know why people aren't getting it."
About carbon monoxide
Where does it come from?
Carbon monoxide is found in combustion fumes, like those produced by burning fire wood, charcoal and natural gas. It is also produced by automobiles and generators, which is why it's dangerous to run automobiles or generators in enclosed spaces. Carbon monoxide is not produced by home heating systems that are powered by electricity.
How does carbon monoxide affect the body?
Carbon monoxide is a gas, its concentration measured in parts per million. At a concentration of 35 parts per million, the colorless, odorless gas can cause flu-like symptoms. The gas displaces oxygen in the bloodstream. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, large amounts of carbon monoxide "can overcome you in minutes without warning -- causing you to lose consciousness and suffocate."
49 treated after prison gas leak in November
A carbon monoxide leak believed to be associated with the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system at York County Prison in Springettsbury Township sent 49 female inmates to various hospitals in November. After the incident, Warden Mary Sabol said the prison would look into adding carbon monoxide detectors in the facility. In December, county spokesman Carl Lindquist said six single-gas detectors, plus another multiple-gas detector, which cost about $2,050 total, had been ordered. Assessing your chimney sweep
Jim Clark, owner of J and L Chimney & Services in Delta, said people get what they pay for when they hire a chimney sweep.
"The price range for a sweep and a level one inspection, you should be between $130 and $170, depending on travel time," Clark said. He advised using a chimney sweep that has liability insurance and is certified with the Chimney Safety Institute of America. A list of CSIA certified sweeps is available at www.csia.org.
Clark said it's important to hire someone who will do quality work. "Most people don't quite understand the hazards of chimneys," he said. "They think because they have an oil flue, which is from your oil furnace, it doesn't need to be serviced."
But National Fire Protection Association's 2011 regulations say all flues and vents must be inspected annually, he said.
Maintaining appliances, chimneys and flues is key to preventing fires and carbon monoxide incidents, Clark said.
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