Dec. 18, 2009 -- Even after 14 years, Cheryl Burt still recalls the labored breathing of her 16-month-old son, Zach. She says she felt helpless to save him as he died in his sleep of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Burt lost two of her three children that night to something she never even thought was a problem.
"When you have carbon monoxide in your home, you cannot see it. You cannot taste it. You cannot smell it. You will feel its effects -- a headache, nausea, dizziness -- but you don't realize that you're being poisoned," she told Congress today.
Burt's words fell on the ears of lawmakers Thursday as part of a series of hearings on a bill that aims to cut the number of carbon monoxide deaths -- currently 500 every year in the United States. Another 15,000 people go to the hospital with symptoms of CO poisoning.
Congress is considering legislation that would require all carbon monoxide detectors to meet certain standards and would allocate millions of dollars to educate the public about the life-saving value of those detectors.
But there are steps you can take right now to keep your family safe from CO poisoning and help identify when there might be a problem in your home.
Protecting Yourself From Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
Carbon monoxide is a byproduct of burning fuels like natural gas, oil, kerosene, wood and coal.
According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the easiest way people can protect themselves is to have a functioning carbon monoxide detector. Even though some devices cost around $20, only half of American homes currently have one and only six states -- Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Rhode Island and Wisconsin -- require them in every household.
Ideally, one should be installed on every level of the home and outside every separate sleeping area. You should change the batteries when you change your clock batteries, just like your smoke detectors.
Homeowners should get new detectors every eight to 10 years since the electronics inside can lose their effectiveness over time.
How to Tell Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Symptoms
The most common symptoms of CO poisoning are difficult to diagnose because they mimic other illnesses, according to the CPSC. They include headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, chest pain and confusion.
If someone in your family experiences these symptoms, get to a doctor and be vigilant about things that could cause a CO leak in your home.
Likely Sources of CO Leaks
Portable generators are the number one source of CO deaths, because people bring them inside when the power goes out. The CPSC says this is a very dangerous practice and people should never do it.
Furnaces are another key cause and that's why you should have your furnace professionally inspected every year to make sure there are no leaks. The inspector should also check chimneys and flues for damage that could cause a leak.
Running your car in a closed space, like an enclosed garage, or using a grill inside are both safety hazards and could put you in danger of CO poisoning.