BREWER, Maine -&nbspCarbon monoxide is a silent killer because it’ s odorless, colorless and has no taste, but it can quickly overcome a person.

If it’ s undetected, long-term exposure can rob the body of the oxygen it needs to survive and lead to brain damage or even death.

“It’ s very dangerous and it’ s very common,” Brewer Fire Chief Rick Bronson said Tuesday.

CO poisoning causes the same symptoms as the flu, minus the fever, so oftentimes people overlook the warning signs, which can be a deadly mistake, he said.

Carbon monoxide is produced by burning materials containing carbon so most heating systems produce the gas and must be ventilated to prevent exposure, the chief said.

Installing a CO detector and having annual home heating inspections are two simple things people can do to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning from happening to them, he said.

“Only about one-third of Maine homes have CO alarms,” state toxicologist Andrew Smith said Tuesday. “We see roughly between 100 and 150 visits a year in ER visits from CO poisonings.”

All homes should have a carbon monoxide detector that is certified by the Underwriters Laboratory, he said, adding that he has two in his home.

Most carbon monoxide poisonings are preventable, Smith said, with around 20 percent being work-related and the rest listed as residential.

“A significant fraction of them are heating system-related,” he said.

Mainers who run vehicles to warm them up in attached unventilated garages and people who use generators inside without ventilation top the list for preventable CO poisonings, during normal years.

This winter Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention officials are expecting higher than normal numbers “as Mainers turn to alternative ways to heat their homes in the face of higher fuel costs,” Smith said.

A plugged chimney or stovepipe not used in a while is one problem that could lead to higher poisoning reports, and “there are going to be people & who rely on a kerosene heater in a single room for warmth,” who do not “properly vent that room” to prevent the gas from building up to toxic levels, Smith said.

Four people died in Maine during 2006 from carbon monoxide poisoning, according to the Maine CDC figures. CO poisoning “is the leading cause of accidental poisoning deaths in America,” the federal CDC Web site states.

“Carbon monoxide poisoning claims nearly 500 lives, and causes more than 15,000 visits to hospital emergency departments annually” across the country, it states.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission Web site adds that of that total, “about 200 people die each year from carbon monoxide poisoning associated with home fuel-burning heating equipment.”

The Maine CDC, in May, began conducting follow-up interviews with all CO poisonings to determine the best way to prevent future occurrences, toxicologist Smith said.

The CDC has three recommendations and four preventive measures to avert carbon monoxide poisonings:

  • Have your heating system, water heater and any other gas, oil, or coal burning appliances serviced by a qualified technician every year.
  • Install a battery-operated CO detector in your home and check or replace the battery when you change the time on your clocks each spring and fall. If the detector sounds leave your home immediately and call 911.
  • Seek prompt medical attention if you suspect CO poisoning and are feeling dizzy, light-headed or nauseated.
  • Don’ t use a generator, charcoal grill, camp stove, or other gasoline or charcoal-burning device inside your home, basement, or garage or near a window.
  • Don’t run a car or truck inside a garage attached to your house, even if you leave the door open.
  • Don’ t burn anything in a stove or fireplace that isn’ t vented.
  • Don’ t heat your house with a gas oven.

The Maine CDC also recommends:

  • Use kerosene heaters only in a well-ventilated room, with only K-1 grade fuel.
  • Keep chimney flue and a window open when burning decorative gas fireplace logs as a heat source.