Carbon monoxide in your home is a silent killer.

Olympic Flame from the 1988 Winter Games at the University of Calgary. (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)
Olympic Flame from the 1988 Winter Games at the University of Calgary. (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)

A 12-year-old boy has died after high levels of carbon monoxide were detected at an Airdrie, Alberta apartment complex earlier this month.

Sometime ago provincial politicians in Ontario passed a bill named after a family of four who died in 2008 from carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning in their Woodstock, Ontario home.

These are just two examples.

According to Statistics Canada, there were 380 accidental deaths caused by CO in Canada between 2000 and 2009. Approximately 600 accidental deaths due to CO poisoning are reported annually in the United States. Intentional carbon monoxide-related deaths is five to 10 times higher.

CO has no smell, no taste and no colour, but its effects can be deadly if it goes undetected through your house.

CO is produced when fuels such as natural gas, gasoline, oil, propane, wood or coal are burned. The situation gets worse when that combustion is not properly ventilated, or when the CO can not get out of the house because of a blocked or dirty chimney.

It is dangerous to use appliances indoor that are meant to be used outdoors. CO can build up to dangerous levels when fuel-burning generators, space heaters, barbecues, grills or other appliances are used indoors in the garage.

CO is invisible. There are no obvious signs it may be building up around you. When you inhale CO it gets into your body and competes with oxygen. Oxygen is very essential for our survival. The brain is extremely vulnerable to oxygen deprivation. Without oxygen, body tissue and cells cannot function. CO deprives you of oxygen and literally suffocates you.

It is essential to have CO detectors in your vicinity. The most important place to install a CO alarm is in hallways, outside of sleeping areas.

At low levels of CO exposure, Health Canada says, you might have a headache, feel tired or short of breath, or find your motor functions impaired.

At higher levels of exposure, or at lower levels for a long time, symptoms might include chest pain, feeling tired or dizzy, and having trouble thinking.

Convulsions, coma and death are possible with high levels of exposure.

If the levels are very high, death can occur within minutes.

Prevention is better than cure. Fire and public safety officials recommend having CO detectors in the house, ideally located outside every sleeping area. Make sure your appliances are well maintained.

Fuel-burning appliances such as furnaces, water heaters, fireplaces and wood stoves should also have regular maintenance, and ventilation should be checked, ensuring it is not blocked by snow or leaves.

Treatment of CO exposure consists of removing the person from the site, administrating 100 per cent oxygen and transporting to the nearest hospital for further management.

Finally, make sure your house has CO detectors and smoke alarms. Smoke alarms alert you to fires. Install a CO alarm certified by a certification body that is accredited by the Standards Council of Canada.

Test your CO alarms regularly. Replace batteries and the alarm itself as recommended by the manufacturer.

Contact your municipal or provincial government office for more information on the use and installation of carbon monoxide alarms. Your local fire department may also be able to assist you.

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