Many people in the world do not have electricity in their homes, whether by choice or necessity. The Amish are among these people. Needs, such as for heat, light, running water, and others are satisfied through use of combustion devices. Unfortunately, this may increase exposure to a by-product of combustion, carbon monoxide.
This colorless, odorless gas is deadly in high concentrations. At lower levels it affects the unborn and the sick, and may cause other problems. Because of these risks, a study was done several months ago in Amish homes in Elkhart County, Indiana.
The study was done in the winter as a one time test in each home. First a CO level was obtained when entering the house which showed the overall exposure to the family. Next, any equipment of concern was tested for production of CO. Results showed seven of thirty-three homes with elevated CO levels upon entering and thirteen homes with equipment producing significant levels of CO.
High levels in the home were associated with use of certain equipment: a camp stove used for indoor cooking, one washing machine in use for several hours, and a seldom used portable heater. Other situations showed high levels of CO and illness associated with their use: again a portable heater and a washing machine. Sometimes elevated levels were found but it was less clear which equipment was causing it.
In other published studies, both use of equipment in a confined space and use of portable heaters have shown to be of risk. Based upon these preliminary findings, I would recommend the following: use of a battery-powered carbon monoxide monitor in the living space of the home, placing the engines powering home equipment outside the house, and keeping the door open when using a room heater. Finally, risk to the family goes up when equipment, such as space heaters and washers (with inside motors), are used for long periods of time. If the CO monitor alarms, it is best to open windows and go to the neighbors until the cause can be corrected.
Further study is needed to more clearly define other risks associated with combustion devices in Amish homes.
Tim Lund, M.D.,
Occupational Medicine Master's Program, University of Michigan
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