Winter is the time of the year when Carbon Monoxide (CO) poisoning occurs most often. Many people seal up or “winterize” their homes to provide more insulation. This tightens up the home for more energy efficiency, but it also contributes to indoor air quality problems. CO can build up in your home as a result of faulty heating systems, improperly ventilated appliances and fireplaces. This invisible, odorless, colorless gas is often referred to as the Silent Killer. Exposure to CO can result in serious tissue damage and even death. You always want to be prepared to deal with a potential carbon monoxide leak in your home. Unfortunately, you may not get a second chance to ready yourself for this deadly gas, so make sure you take the necessary steps now.
What is Carbon Monoxide?
This toxic gas is colorless, odorless and undetectable to the human senses. Normal concentrations of carbon monoxide in a home range from 0.5 to 5 parts per million (PPM). The gas becomes dangerous at about 70 PPM, and death is a real possibility at sustained concentrations of 150 to 200 PPM or higher.
When too much CO gas is in the air, it binds to the hemoglobin in your blood, taking up the binding sites that oxygen usually occupies. This prevents your blood from transporting oxygen around your body, causing you to suffocate. Even at quite low concentrations, you may still suffer lasting effects of CO poisoning because the carbon monoxide molecules bond so strongly to the hemoglobin that it’s difficult for them to release.
The initial symptoms of low-level carbon monoxide exposure mimic the flu, but without the fever. You may have a headache, feel fatigued, and suffer from shortness of breath, nausea and dizziness. People with heart disease may also experience chest pain. At higher concentrations, symptoms include impaired vision, loss of muscle coordination, mental confusion, vomiting, reduced brain function, unconsciousness and death.
The type and severity of these symptoms depend on the duration of exposure. Milder symptoms only appear if you are exposed to low-level CO concentrations for days or longer. Unexplained and lasting flu symptoms should be taken seriously. In cases of rapid poisoning, such as when a portable generator is run indoors, victims become confused and lose muscle control quickly without experiencing the milder symptoms first. If the people are not rescued, this situation is often fatal.
Where does Carbon Monoxide Come From?
CO is the byproduct of incomplete oxidation during combustion. Any appliance or equipment that burns natural gas, oil, wood, coal, charcoal, kerosene or propane generates carbon monoxide. The risk comes when fuel-burning appliances are used in enclosed spaces and without proper ventilation.
Specific sources of CO gas include:
- Furnaces and boilers
- Gas-powered stoves
- Kerosene space heaters
- Water heaters
- Portable generators
- Lawn mowers
- Wood-burning fireplaces and stoves
- Charcoal grills
- Car exhaust
- Tobacco smoke
Preventing Carbon Monoxide in Your Home
Your first defense again CO gas is to install carbon monoxide detectors throughout your home. Aim to have one on each floor of your home, especially near sleeping areas so you wake up if the alarm sounds in the middle of the night. These devices are designed to sound the alarm before life-threatening levels of CO are reached.
If the CO alarm goes off and no one is experiencing CO poisoning symptoms (headache, weakness, dizziness, upset stomach, vomiting, chest pain, and confusion), windows should be opened and fuel-burning appliances must be shut off. It is imperative that a certified technician inspect and fix the problem as soon as possible. In case someone is experiencing CO poisoning, they must be taken to a hospital immediately.
Test your CO detectors once a month to ensure they work when you need them most. Change the batteries yearly for uninterrupted operation.
Other tips include the following:
- Have your gas, oil or coal-burning appliances serviced by a technician every year.
- Buy only gas equipment carrying the seal of a national testing laboratory.
- Have your chimney inspected and cleaned every year. Chimneys can be clogged by debris that can cause CO to build up in your home.
- Do not operate gasoline-powered tools like portable generators in or near your house, garage or other enclosed space.
- Never use a gas range, oven or charcoal grill for heating indoors.
- Never run a car or truck inside a garage attached to your house, even if you leave the door open.
One of the scariest and most dangerous problems you can encounter as a homeowner is a carbon monoxide leak. The good news is that CO poisoning is completely avoidable when proper home maintenance measures are taken! For more information about protecting your family from exposure to this silent killer, check out the following resource from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).