You can’t see, smell, or taste this poisonous gas, so prevention is the key to protecting yourself and your loved ones.
By Jim Brightly
Every year, hundreds of people in the United States die from carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning, and thousands of others end up in hospital emergency rooms from breathing this noxious gas. The statistics are regrettable, as most of these incidents could be avoided.
Carbon monoxide is a poisonous gas that has no color, odor, or taste. It is produced by the incomplete combustion of carbon-based fuels such as gasoline, natural gas, LP gas, oil, kerosene, coal, charcoal, or wood. What makes carbon monoxide so harmful is that it restricts the amount of oxygen absorbed from your lungs into your bloodstream. Lack of oxygen in the blood can lead to organ, brain, and central nervous system damage.
Many people who suffer carbon monoxide poisoning mistake it for the flu, and it’s not unusual for physicians to misdiagnose the illness. The initial symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning “” which also can mimic altitude sickness or food poisoning “” are headache, fatigue, shortness of breath, dizziness, nausea, and rapid heartbeat. The victim’s skin also may turn pink or red in response to rising blood pressure. If you experience any of these symptoms, do not ignore them; they can lead to more serious problems, such as loss of hearing, blurred vision, vomiting, disorientation, seizures, cardiac arrest, loss of consciousness, coma, and respiratory failure.
If you experience symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning while traveling in your motorhome, exit the vehicle immediately and call 911 (or the appropriate number) for medical attention. Do not ignore the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning; if you remain in the motorhome you could lose consciousness and die. If you are uncertain about the illness and choose not to call 911, at the very least see a physician for a precise diagnosis.
The effects of carbon monoxide poisoning depend on the level and length of exposure, as well as each individual’s health. No one is immune to the dangers of carbon monoxide exposure. However, individuals with existing health problems such as heart or lung disease are especially vulnerable, as are the elderly, infants, children, and unborn babies. Carbon monoxide concentration is measured in parts per million (ppm). Those exposed to carbon monoxide levels of 1 to 70 ppm typically do not experience any symptoms (some heart patients might experience an increase in chest pains). But as the level of gas increases and remains above 70 ppm, symptoms may become more noticeable (headache, fatigue, nausea). As carbon monoxide levels increase into the 150- to 200-ppm range, disorientation, unconsciousness, and death become possible.
In one case, a school bus driver kept getting severe headaches during her route. Many of the children on her bus also were becoming ill, even on short trips. The bus was checked several times, but no malfunction was discovered. It wasn’t until the driver underwent a very painful bone marrow test that she was found to be suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning. Once mechanics knew that the exhaust system on the bus was the culprit, they were able to find the leak, which was located on top of the muffler in an almost inaccessible spot. The exhaust had seeped into the interior of the bus, making the kids and driver ill. The same thing could happen in a motorhome.
To help protect you and your family from possible carbon monoxide poisoning, here are several tips and suggestions to keep in mind. Remember, by the time symptoms appear, you’ve already been exposed to a harmful dose of carbon monoxide, so early warning and prevention should be your primary concern.
One important thing you should do is invest in carbon monoxide alarms for both your motorhome and your stationary residence if you do not already have them. Similar to a smoke alarm, a carbon monoxide alarm acts as an early warning system, alerting anyone within earshot of a potentially dangerous situation. But unlike a fire, which eventually will show itself in the form of smoke or flames, you may never know you have a carbon monoxide problem until it’s too late.
The Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) requires its member manufacturers to place carbon monoxide alarms in motorhomes manufactured after September 1, 1993, and in towable RVs that have a generator or are prepped for a generator. However, you may want to add other alarms so that there is one in each of your motorhome’s sleeping areas. When choosing an installation location, make sure the alarm cannot be covered up by the furniture or draperies.
The National Safety Council cautions that carbon monoxide detectors should be used as a backup “” not as a replacement for proper use and maintenance of fuel-burning appliances.
When choosing an alarm, look for one that meets the requirements of the current UL standard 2034 or the IAS 6-96 standard. Also make sure you choose an alarm specifically made for RV use. The most recent evaluation and UL listing for carbon monoxide alarms is UL 2034-2003 Including RV & Unconditioned Areas. CO alarms designed to be used in an RV must comply with additional requirements to address the special conditions often present. In 1998, when Underwriters Laboratories made major revisions to the listing, part of the change included renaming the standard to UL 2034 “” Carbon Monoxide Alarms. Most manufacturers followed suit by labeling their products alarms instead of detectors. So, if the device installed in your motorhome is labeled as a “detector” rather than an “alarm,” this likely is an indication that it is an older device that doesn’t meet current standards. Alarms that meet the requirements of UL 2034 provide a greater safety margin than previously manufactured detectors.
Should the carbon monoxide alarm sound, immediately press the rest/silence button. Move to fresh air and make sure everyone else is out of the motorhome. If elevated levels of carbon monoxide continue to exist, the newer alarms will sound again in six minutes. If anyone is experiencing symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, call for emergency medical services.
While carbon monoxide alarms alert you to increased levels of carbon monoxide in your motorhome, they are not foolproof. In order to test your carbon monoxide detector, follow the manufacturer’s instructions. When the test button is pressed, some detectors/alarms indicate whether the circuitry as well as the carbon monoxide sensor is working, while the test button on other detectors checks only the circuitry. For units that test only the circuitry, a separate test kit is available to test the sensor inside the alarm. Test the alarm at least once a month, and replace the batteries in battery-powered units at least once a year.
If your alarm sounds but no one on board has symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, turn off any appliances or other sources of combustion, open the motorhome’s windows and doors, and check for possible sources of carbon monoxide. If you cannot locate a source, have a qualified service technician make necessary adjustments or repairs to the alarm or have it replaced to correct the problem. Be sure to do this before turning on the appliances again. Whatever you do, never ignore a sounding carbon monoxide alarm.
There are many instances when you or your family may be exposed to higher-than-usual carbon monoxide levels and not even know it. One example is letting your motorhome’s engine idle for extended periods of time without moving the coach. In certain situations, the exhaust can build up to dangerous levels in or around the motorhome. The coach should be parked in such a way that the exhaust can dissipate easily. If you are parked close to another motorhome, you also should be aware of its engine or generator exhaust. Even cracking the bedroom window slightly may allow a dangerous amount of carbon monoxide into the motorhome if the exhaust pipe is located under the window.
You also could run into problems if your motorhome contains an incorrectly vented or malfunctioning water heater, furnace, or oven/stove, which would allow the carbon monoxide to pool inside. Even smoking cigarettes, cigars, or pipes in a tightly sealed motorhome can elevate the carbon monoxide levels inside the vehicle.
Should you experience elevated levels of carbon monoxide inside your motorhome, check each appliance by observing the color of its flame. An orange flame means it may have a problem; however, a blue flame does not necessarily mean the appliance is safe. Never service fuel-burning appliances without proper knowledge, skills, and tools, and always refer to the owners manual when performing adjustments. Better yet, have a qualified service technician service your fuel-burning appliances once a year, just as you would for the furnace and water heater in a stationary residence.
Similarly, the vehicle and generator exhaust systems should be inspected regularly and operated only when they are free of problems. Do not sleep with the generator running. The underside of the motorhome should be checked for any openings that could allow carbon monoxide to enter the vehicle. Any such openings should be sealed. Every year new stories provide tragic details about families who use a barbecue grill, nonvented LP-gas catalytic heater, or other apparatus for overnight heating and never wake up. Don’t let this happen to you! Never operate an unvented fuel-burning appliance inside your motorhome and never use gas appliances such as ranges or ovens as a heat source for your motorhome.
Follow these simple guidelines and travel secure in the knowledge that this silent killer won’t sneak up on you.