Carbon monoxide exposure is a particular concern in poor, run-down neighborhoods.
The St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center in Baltimore examined the furnaces in more than 300 low-income homes as part of the city weatherization program between 1997 and 1999. ''I'd say one quarter of the houses with older heating units have some kind of problem,'' said Robert J. Logston, energy coordinator for Blue Ridge Fuel Co., St. Ambrose's heating contractor.
Collapsed chimneys are common, he said. Old furnaces may also have cracks in their heat exchanger -- the device that conducts heat from the burner to the room air. The cracks allow CO to infiltrate the room air as it's being warmed.
Poor families may unknowingly worsen their risk in winter by gathering in the kitchen for warmth when the oil tank runs dry. In a recent federal study, 14.5 percent of the low-income families surveyed in the United States reported using their gas stove or oven for heat.
David Brosch, coordinator for the Baltimore City Weatherization Program, said past efforts to make low-income homes more weather-tight may have inadvertently sealed in CO problems. Now, he said, ''We test every single house we go into, even if it has a brand-new furnace.''
Last year, the program had to replace about 40 of the 180 furnaces it checked. All the rest had to be cleaned and adjusted or repaired.
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