Poison Control centers in the Southland warn that with another cold spell approaching, residents should be aware of the potential danger of carbon monoxide poisoning from using extra sources of combustible heat in the home.
Poison experts are primarily concerned about people using barbecues or hibachis in enclosed areas, then being poisoned while they’re asleep.
A Garden Grove family was asphyxiated--with the father and son in the family dying--a month ago because they used a hibachi to heat their cold apartment.
Although there have been no other serious incidents reported in Orange County, according to the UC Irvine Poison Control Center, other Southland counties have reported carbon monoxide problems, all stemming from improper use of heating units.
“You can’t have a carbon monoxide problem if you bring in an extra space heater that’s electric,” pointed out Dr. Richard Thomas, director of the UCI Poison Center. “It’s the combustible type heaters--like the hibachis--that can cause a serious problem. If you don’t have adequate ventilation, you’ll have a buildup of carbon monoxide. But of course, if you had adequate ventilation, you’d defeat the purpose of trying to heat your home. The best thing to do is just stay away from that kind of heat supply.”
“We can go years without any (cases) at all. This happens to be a particularly cold winter,” said Dr. Anthony Manoguerra, director of the Poison Control Center in San Diego County.
Combustible heaters can emit odorless and colorless carbon monoxide gas, which replaces oxygen and causes symptoms of headache, nausea, dizziness and fatigue. Sometimes, there are no symptoms, and victims simply pass out. The problem is especially acute when windows are closed to keep out the cold--also shutting out fresh air.
The UC San Diego Medical Center has treated 15 carbon monoxide victims--one of whom died--from Dec. 20 to Wednesday, contrasted with 34 cases for all of 1989 and 40 for the preceding year. Grossmont Hospital has treated six cases during the past few months.
“Every time we do have a cold snap, there’s a chance of people using that space heater or turning on the wall heater that hasn’t been used in a year,” said Kim Mueller, a nurse at UCSD.
One unidentified north San Diego County family became sick on Christmas, overcome by fumes from a barbecue brought indoors, and was treated at Tri-County and UCSD medical centers before being released.
Carbon monoxide victims are treated in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, which is pressurized with pure oxygen to displace the toxic gas in the bloodstream. Carbon monoxide can cause brain damage or death if oxygen is denied long enough.
An extreme reminder of the carbon monoxide’s deadly potential came Dec. 14, when 12 people died in a Tijuana home during a religious rite. A butane lantern had been brought into the living room to provide light, and windows were tightly closed.
“If you do have any symptoms, headache, nausea and vomiting, don’t attribute them to possible flu symptoms,” Mueller advised.
After a short respite from the Christmas cold snap, the latest weather advisory predicts low temperatures returning Sunday or Monday.
Southland utility companies urge renters and homeowners to check heating systems, clearing dust and lint from furnace pilot and burner areas, replacing furnace filters, and making sure furnace vents aren’t blocked by rags, leaves or other debris.
“If you have a question, if you’re concerned about your heater working correctly, our recommendation is to call a local heating or plumbing contractor or call us,” SDG&E; spokesman Fred Vaughn said.
“While we don’t charge (for inspections), it can take us a couple of days to get there,” he said.
SDG&E;, said Vaughn, is especially concerned about older wall furnaces that haven’t been inspected for years. Often, renters don’t know how well the furnaces have been maintained.
Also, SDG&E; advises that pilot lights and burner flames should be bright blue, perhaps with flecks of orange. Burner flames with long, yellow tips are danger signs, and soot deposits around the burner or vent areas are signs of possible trouble.