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Q&A - carbon monoxide

What are some of the signs of carbon monoxide poisoning, and how can you make your boat safer?

The warning signs of carbon monoxide poisoning include irritated, watery eyes; a flushed appearance; lack of concentration; ringing in the ears; throbbing temples and a headache; dizziness, nausea or vomiting; and, ultimately, collapsing and convulsions. Keep in mind that CO poisoning can be mistaken for seasickness.

If you suspect CO poisoning, move the victim to an area where there is plenty of fresh air and treat with oxygen if available. CO is absorbed through the lungs and reduces the ability of blood to carry oxygen. If the levels are high enough, you will die from asphyxiation. Contact medical help. Administer CPR if the person stops breathing.

The most common source of CO on boats is gas and diesel engine exhaust, though diesels produce significantly less. CO also is produced by cooking ranges, charcoal grills, and water and space heaters.
Take these steps to reduce the likelihood of exposure:
• Keep engines and generators properly tuned.
• Inspect and maintain your exhaust system. Look and listen for leaks. Exhaust clamps should be in good shape and tight. Replace hoses that are cracked, deteriorating or show signs of burn. Check each joint in the system for cracks, water leaks and rust stains, black streaking or other discoloration.
• Keep people away from engine and generator exhaust outlets. Stay off the swim platform when the engines are running and never teak surf.
• Be aware of possible CO emissions from other boats docked or tied up alongside your boat.
• Understand how the “station wagon effect” or air flow dynamics can draw CO back into a boat while under way. Opening a foredeck hatch or a windscreen or vent in the forward section of the pilothouse can help eliminate this.
• Install CO alarms in your boat.

This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue.