Cut Risk of CO Poisoning by Giving Residents Safety Tips
Along with the cold weather comes the risk of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning. CO is a colorless, odorless gas that kills an estimated 1,000 people each year, according to the National Safety Council.
While CO poisoning is usually caused by faulty heating systems, it can also be caused by things that household members bring into their units, like kerosene heaters and charcoal grills. You can help reduce the risk of CO poisoning at your site by warning residents of the effects CO can have on their health, telling them the symptoms of CO poisoning, and giving them tips for preventing a dangerous buildup of CO in their unit. We’ll give you a Model Memo: Inform Residents of Risks Associated with CO Poisoning, that you can adapt and give to households.
Resident’s Misuse of Appliance Causes CO Poisoning
There are hundreds of court cases in which owners have been sued for injuries household members have suffered due to exposure to CO, usually because of a faulty heating system. But, as noted above, household members can also expose themselves to CO by, say, using their stove or a kerosene heater to heat their units or using a charcoal grill indoors. In such a case, the owner is likely to win the lawsuit. But it’s best to educate residents on preventing CO poisoning to avoid losing a life.
For example, in one case, an Illinois resident died of CO poisoning when she covered the vents in her stove and left the stove on to heat her unit. The resident’s family sued the owner for failing to warn the resident of the dangers of using the stove in this manner. The owner argued that it didn’t have a duty to warn the resident not to misuse her appliances.
An appeals court ruled that the owner wasn’t liable for the resident’s misuse of her stove. The court explained that owners generally aren’t liable for hazards that are out of their control, such as a resident’s misuse of an appliance. And since the owner wasn’t liable for the resident’s misuse of the stove, the owner didn’t have a duty to warn her about the dangers of misusing the stove [Engram v. Chicago Housing Authority.].
Give Households Memo About CO Safety
One of the best ways to keep your residents safe from CO is to educate them about it. To do this, give them a memo, like our Model Memo, which explains the following:
CO and its effects on health. Explain that CO is released whenever carbon-based substances, such as natural gas or charcoal, are burned, says Ron Nickson, vice president of buildings and codes for the National Multi Housing Council. Say that CO can build up to dangerous levels if there’s no air vent or open window for it to escape. And explain that the reason CO is so dangerous is that the body’s red blood cells absorb CO faster than they absorb oxygen, allowing CO to replace the oxygen in the bloodstream—and basically suffocate tissues and organs, he says.
Common symptoms of CO poisoning. List the common symptoms of CO poisoning, which include headache, fatigue, shortness of breath, nausea, and dizziness. Say that in severe cases, CO poisoning can lead to disorientation, unconsciousness, or death. And say that if residents feel some of these symptoms while inside their unit, but feel better when they’ve been out of their unit for several hours, they should search for a source of CO as a potential cause.
Tips for preventing buildup of CO in units. Give households the following seven tips for preventing a dangerous buildup of CO in their unit:
Tip #1: Make sure flue in fireplace is open. If the flue in a fireplace—that is, the mechanism in a fireplace that lets the air and smoke out—isn’t open while a fire is burning, the fire won’t be able to ventilate properly, which can cause a dangerous buildup of CO.
Tip #2: Never use gas range or oven to heat unit. Using a gas range or oven to heat a unit can also cause a dangerous buildup of CO.
Tip #3: Never use charcoal or gas grill indoors. Surprisingly, when the summer is over, some residents cook on their grills inside their unit. But cooking on a grill indoors can also cause a dangerous buildup of CO.
Tip #4: Don’t use portable heaters indoors. Kerosene and gas space heaters are extremely dangerous CO hazards, says Nickson. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that each year as many as 200 people are killed by CO poisoning resulting from the improper use of space heaters. They’re also a fire hazard and illegal in many cities, he adds. So warn residents not to use kerosene or gas space heaters to heat their units. Also warn residents not to use flameless chemical heaters. Even though these heaters don’t have a flame, they burn gas and can cause a buildup of CO.
Tip #5: Don’t use gas camp stoves indoors. Residents may use gas camp stoves to heat their units, particularly if there’s a power outage. But using gas camp stoves indoors can also cause a dangerous buildup of CO.
Tip #6: Don’t leave car idling in closed garage. If your units have garages, warn residents not to leave their cars idling with the garage door closed. Explain that if they do, the garage can quickly fill up with CO and overcome them.
Tip #7: Don’t block airflow around windows and doors. Residents sometimes cover their windows with plastic sheeting and place rugs or towels in spaces under doors to avoid winter drafts or save money on heating. But doing so blocks fresh oxygen from entering the unit and prevents any CO in the unit from escaping, which could lead to a dangerous buildup of CO, even if gas heating is working correctly. So warn residents not to cover their windows with plastic sheeting or place rugs or towels under their doors.
Ron Nickson: Vice President of Building Codes, National Multi Housing Council, 1850 M St., NW, Washington, DC 20036; www.nmhc.org.
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