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Health Briefs

Preventing Carbon Monoxide Exposure

Due to rising gas and oil prices, this year may be especially hazardous as more people use alternative heating sources such as kerosene and wood to reduce home heating costs. The Virginia Department of Health reminds all Virginians to be aware of the causes and warning signs of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless, tasteless and highly poisonous gas that interferes with the delivery of oxygen in the blood to the rest of the body. It is produced by the incomplete burning of fuels including coal, wood, charcoal, natural gas, gasoline, diesel, kerosene and heating oil.

According to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 500 people nationwide die as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning each year. The CDC reports that unborn babies, infants and individuals with respiratory or chronic heart problems are more prone to the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning.

The most common symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, chest pain and confusion. High levels of carbon monoxide ingestion can cause loss of consciousness and death. Unless suspected, carbon monoxide poisoning can be difficult to diagnose because the symptoms mimic other illnesses. People who are sleeping or intoxicated can die from carbon monoxide poisoning before ever experiencing symptoms.

Carbon monoxide can be easily and cheaply detected in the home. It can be prevented with knowledge and properly installed alarm systems.

Prevent carbon monoxide exposure by following these safety tips:

* Have the heating system, water heater and any other gas, oil or coal burning appliances serviced by a qualified technician every year.

* Install a battery-operated carbon monoxide detector and test it at least once a month and replace carbon monoxide alarms according to the manufacturer's instructions. The National Fire Protection Association recommends that a carbon monoxide alarm should be centrally located outside of each separate sleeping area in the immediate vicinity of the bedrooms. For added protection, install additional alarms in each separate bedroom and on every level of your home.

* Leave a home immediately and call 911 if the alarm sounds.

* Seek prompt medical attention if carbon monoxide poisoning is suspected.

* Do not use a generator, charcoal grill, camp stove or other gasoline or charcoal-burning device inside a home, basement, garage or outside near a window.

* Do not run a car or truck inside a garage attached to a house, even if the door is open.

* Do not burn anything in a stove or fireplace that is not vented.

* Do not heat a house with a gas oven.

Radon Testing

The state Department of Health recommends homeowners protect their families by testing for radon. Radon is a gas that comes from the natural breakdown of uranium in soil, rock and water. Even though there are no immediate symptoms, radon becomes harmful at elevated levels when trapped inside of buildings.

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), radon is the number one cause of lung cancer among non-smokers and is responsible for 21,000 lung cancer deaths every year. About 2,900 of these deaths occur among people who have never smoked. The amount of time between radon exposure and the onset of lung cancer may be many years.

When dispersed outdoors, radon poses very little harm. Radon typically enters homes through cracks and other holes in the foundation. Any house is susceptible to radon exposure, whether old or new, with or without a basement, well-sealed or drafty.

Conducting a radon test is the only way to determine whether a home is free of radon, because it cannot be seen, smelled or tasted. The best times to conduct a test are fall and winter, because doors and windows are usually sealed against the cold. This ensures a more accurate reading. However, testing can be conducted at any time of the year if doors and windows have been closed for 12 hours. The EPA recommends that testing be conducted in the lowest livable level of the home, such as the basement.

Radon is measured in picocuries — units of radiation — per liter of air. Houses with radon levels registering four picocuries or more should be vented to prevent the accumulation of the gas indoors. Homeowners can seal cracks and other openings in the foundation to reduce radon exposure. However, the EPA does not recommend the use of sealing alone to limit radon entry. In most cases, a ventilation system is required to prevent the gas from entering the home from below the floor and outside the foundation.

Low-cost radon test kits are available at most hardware stores. For more information on radon testing, call VDH's Radon Hotline 800-468-0138 or visit http://www.vdh.virginia.gov/rad/RHP-radon.asp.