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Carbon Monoxide Poisoning and Camping

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When enjoying the fresh mountain air or the coastal breezes, it’s hard to believe that the danger of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning is closer than you think. Each year, carbon monoxide poisoning claims the lives of more than 400 Americans and is responsible for more than 20,000 emergency room visits and 4,000 hospitalizations, cautions the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Keep your family safe when you’re away from home this summer by keeping the air you're there to enjoy, safe.   

The CDC reports that the number one cause of deaths from poison in the United States is from CO poisoning. CO is an invisible, odorless gas created by burning fuels such as gasoline, propane, natural gas, coal or wood. Breathing in this toxic fume can result in death.

When camping in a recreational vehicle (RV) there are a number of hidden hazards that can lead to CO poisoning. Vehicle and generator exhaust, camping stoves, grills and lanterns are all possible contributors to CO emission. Keep your family safe this summer at your favorite campground by paying attention to:

  • Generators provide electricity to RVs when there is no electrical hookup and run on fuels such as gasoline or diesel, and are a major source of carbon monoxide. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, “When used in a confined space, generators can produce high levels of CO within minutes.” Generators may be portable or built into RVs, such as in motorized RVs and some fifth wheel trailers. Both pose potential hazards for fumes seeping into the camper.
     
  • Vehicle exhaust is another concern for RVs, in particular, towed RVs. The towing vehicle’s exhaust can send fumes inside the camper. When towing, make sure the camper is tightly sealed, windows are shut and never let a passenger ride in a trailer when towed.
     
  • Fuel burning appliances can also contribute to CO danger. Portable gas heaters, water heaters, stoves/ranges, refrigerators and fireplaces typically run on a fuel-burning source. If these appliances malfunction or are used improperly they can leak carbon monoxide.

Anything burning and taking up oxygen, such a cooking stove or a water heater pilot, contributes to the potential for CO poisoning. When temperatures drop, closing windows and vents and cranking the heat up, on top of possible exhaust exposure, could create a deadly combination.

The CDC warns people against using fuel-burning equipment such as gas stoves (other than those built into the RV), heaters, lanterns and charcoal grills inside a tent, camper or other enclosed shelter and never use a stove-top range burner as a heating source for the camper. Doing so is not only a major fire hazard; it is also a cause for carbon monoxide building up.  

What can you do to make sure your RV is safe?

  • Carbon monoxide detectors
    Just like your home, RVs need smoke detectors and CO detectors. Modern RVs are typically equipped with them, but older or used campers may not be. CO and/or smoke detectors should be installed in every sleeping compartment. There are carbon monoxide detectors specifically designed for use in RVs.
     
  • Never ignore alarms
    When a smoke detector or carbon monoxide detector goes off, exit the area immediately. CO detectors have expiration dates, so check yours on an annual basis.
     
  • Ventilation
    Quality campers are sealed tight and that’s a good thing when it comes to staying warm, cool and energy efficient, but it also poses a greater risk for CO poisoning.
     
  • Avoid leaving windows down and roof vents open when in close proximity to a vehicle and/or generator exhaust
    When cooking with range burners use the range fan and always leave a window cracked open for ventilation. If using a portable generator, make sure it is at a safe distance from the RV, and that the exhaust is directed away from the camping area. If using a built-in generator, the windows on the same side as the generator should be closed when the generator is in use.
     
  • Inspect your RV
    Before each camping trip, inspect your RV. If you are a seasonal camper, check for damage that may have occurred over the winter. Nesting animals can cause damage by blocking vents or chewing wires.

    If you have an onboard generator, check its exhaust system and connections. It’s also a good idea to have your RV serviced professionally to ensure that the generator and other fuel-fed appliances are working properly. If you have a portable generator or gas powered heater, be sure to inspect and test them as well. And remember to check the expiration date on your CO monitors!
     
  • Inspect your surroundings
    Be aware of the people around you. Campground sites can be tight quarters. Even if you aren’t using a generator, your neighbor might be. Check your campsite for any possible hazards, like distance from generators or exhaust exposure. Watch where you park. Make sure nothing is obstructing exhaust pipes or vents.  
     
  • Know the signs of carbon monoxide poisoning
    Symptoms of CO poisoning include headache, weakness, dizziness, nausea or vomiting, shortness of breath, confusion, blurred vision, flu-like symptoms or loss of consciousness. If you suspect that someone may be showing signs of CO poisoning, seek medical attention immediately.

Pop-up style campers and tents are also at risk for CO poisoning, especially in areas where tent sites are located near RV sites. Many of the above rules apply to tents or pop-up trailers. Consider carrying a battery-operated CO detector to help detect any fume danger.

For more information on carbon monoxide poisoning visit www.cdc.gov and SafeKids.org.  

Jim Esdon is the program coordinator for the Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth-Hitchcock (CHaD) Injury Prevention Program.


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