The perils of carbon monoxide

by Steve Galea | November 21, 2013

carbon monoxide - gas heater with red coil

Invisible, odourless, silent, and deadly — most people know that these words sum up the dangers of carbon monoxide (CO). As outdoors enthusiasts, we put ourselves at greater risk of CO poisoning because of the heaters, stoves, and generators we commonly use.

When these are combined with poorly ventilated spaces such as ice huts, tents, enclosed boat cabins, cottages, and other shelters, the risks increase substantially.

Hunter Safety Education Instructor Oliver Barriault of Sudbury says CO safety awareness is critical. As a former member of Vale Inco’s Sudbury mine rescue team, he has first-hand knowledge of the dangers associated with noxious gases in confined, poorly ventilated quarters.

Barriault has a stack of newspaper clippings that tell of numerous carbon monoxide-related tragedies that could have been avoided with greater understanding of the risks. “I started noticing these incidents and then it struck me that more outdoors people die from carbon monoxide poisoning than hypothermia,” he said. “Awareness is the first line of defence. We need to talk about it.”

Know the signs
Barriault says knowing the symptoms of CO poisoning is critical.

CO must knows

  • Delayed treatment can result in permanent damage to the brain or other vital organs, or even death.
  • The very young, very old, and those with anemia, breathing or heart issues are particularly susceptible.

Dizziness, fatigue, headaches, burning eyes, confusion, nausea, drowsiness, loss of consciousness, and irregular breathing are typical warning signs. They often mimic allergies, the flu, heart attack, or intoxication by drugs or alcohol.

Recognizing the symptoms for what they are might allow you to mitigate the effects of the poisoning by getting the victim out into fresh air and calling for medical assistance immediately.

Prevention tactics
Avoid getting yourself in potentially dangerous situations by keeping the following in mind.

  1. Be aware that CO is a byproduct of the combustion process. Any time gas, diesel, wood, sterno, propane, natural gas or charcoal briquettes are burned in poorly ventilated spaces, carbon monoxide can accumulate.
  2. Only use propane lanterns in shelters where proper ventilation is certain, and never leave it on overnight.
  3. Tent flaps should not be the only source of ventilation. Flaps can fall.
  4. Make sure furnaces, propane fridges, and stoves are routinely maintained so they are in proper working order.
  5. Check vents in cottages, cabins, hunt camps and tents to ensure that they aren’t blocked (by snow or other things). Check duct work and chimneys, too.
  6. Always barbecue outside and make sure generators are outside, downwind and a good distance from the building. (The CDC Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a distance of at least 25 feet.)
  7. Install the prescribed amount of CO detectors in your hunt camps, cottages and cabin cruisers to provide early warning. Check local bylaws or contact the local fire department to see what is required in your area.
  8. Rely on battery-operated or electrical lights and heaters when possible.

Remember these things, even on the coldest of days, and your time spent at your camp, cottage or ice hut will be safer.


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