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Baltimore County Now

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Keyword: carbon monoxide. fire safety

poison image icon for COFire Chief John Hohman

In 2005, a 48-year-old man and his two stepdaughters, aged 14 and 15, died in their Essex townhouse after inhaling carbon monoxide.

In 2009, a 44-year-old woman died of carbon monoxide poisoning in her Fullerton apartment. The CO also sickened three others in the home, though they survived.

In 2010, two men, construction workers who boarded with a family in Pikesville, died in a CO incident. The house was a rental property.  

Today, I am proud to say that we have come a long way toward preventing senseless deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning. Since the 2010 fatalities, Baltimore County has reported no carbon monoxide related deaths.

As a Fire Chief with more than 35 years in the fire service, I know this reduction in CO-related tragedies did not happen by accident. We can be grateful to the life-saving carbon monoxide detector – and a piece of County legislation enacted several years ago requiring CO detectors in all rental properties.

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless gas created by the incomplete burning of fuels, such as oil, natural gas, kerosene, coal and wood. Many household appliances use these fuels. If you have a clothes dryer, water heater, an oven or fireplace that uses natural gas, CO buildup can happen. Wood burning fireplaces and stoves, as well as kerosene space heaters, also produce CO.  If not detected, CO buildup from these appliances can seriously injure or even kill you.

The dangers of carbon monoxide escalate during periods of extreme heat and extreme cold. On a freezing cold day – like the record-breaking cold we have felt this month – homes are tightly sealed to keep in the warmth. You may have the heat turned up, the fireplace burning or a space heater running. If CO leaks because one of these devices is malfunctioning, it has no choice but to build up.

Common symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include headaches, nausea, dizziness, irritability, shortness of breath, weakness and fatigue. One of the most dangerous things about CO poisoning is that none of the early symptoms indicate a life-threatening situation. If undetected, the deadly gas can kill without your even knowing it is there. High levels of CO can kill within hours. Low levels will build up over time and slowly make you sick.  

Since the 2009 legislation, the number of CO calls handled by the fire department has increased. There were 704 CO calls received in 2013 alone. And this is good.

People now call the fire department when their CO alarms sound. This means that they are aware of the leak and are getting assistance before it is too late. The detectors are programmed to go off when levels of CO are very low, before the average adult experiences any symptoms.

Significantly, deaths caused by carbon monoxide poisoning plummeted after enforcement of Baltimore County’s law requiring CO alarms in rental properties. In addition, a state law passed in 2007 required all new construction to have CO alarms. I have no doubt that these laws are responsible for reducing serious carbon monoxide incidents.

Even with these advances, we need to do more to educate about carbon monoxide. This month, the Baltimore County Fire Department responded to a call in Randallstown. A mother and two sons were transported to the R. Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center, seriously ill from CO poisoning.

They were lucky. The family survived despite very high levels of CO in the house  -- 780 parts per million. This family’s house did not fall under any of the laws requiring CO alarms.

Let this near-tragedy be a reminder of the importance of having a CO alarm in every home.

Carbon monoxide related injuries and deaths are 100 percent preventable. Having a fully-functioning CO detector in your home can save your life.


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