You’ve probably heard of carbon monoxide, but do you know what it is? Is it dangerous? Do you need a carbon monoxide detector in your home?
Carbon monoxide, or CO, is a colorless and odorless gas commonly found in household appliances and vehicles. If you burn fuel in vehicles, small engines such as lawn mowers, water heaters, tumble dryers, grills, gas fireplaces, gas stoves, or gas ovens, you have come into contact with carbon monoxide.
Sounds pretty harmless, right? Not always. Indoor carbon monoxide or without proper ventilation can cause carbon monoxide poisoning and can be fatal. Every year in the US, more than 400 people die from accidental CO poisoning, more than 20,000 end up in the emergency room, and more than 4,000 are hospitalized. The fact that CO is odorless and invisible makes it even more dangerous, as people often don’t suspect exposure until they are already sick. If they are not familiar with the risks and symptoms of CO poisoning, they can mistake those symptoms for other illnesses. That’s why CO is often referred to as ‘the assassin’.
Keep reading to find out if your family may be at risk for carbon monoxide poisoning and what steps you can take to eliminate that risk.
Do I have a carbon monoxide leak?
A proactive approach is always better than a reactive approach when it comes to a potentially deadly threat.
If you have appliances that use fuel or an attached garage, the proactive approach is to install one (depending on the house) carbon monoxide detector near every sleeping area and on every floor of your home. These detectors are calibrated to industry safety standards set by Underwriters Laboratories and are made to detect the unusual build-up of CO over time. If the CO level exceeds industry safety standards, the detector will beep to alert you. This is the best way to determine if you have a CO leak. We will talk more about buying a carbon monoxide alarm later.
Whether you have a CO detector or not, it is critical to know what signs and symptoms of CO exposure to look out for. It’s also important to understand that some people don’t experience symptoms.
Common Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
The severity of CO poisoning and the speed with which it occurs depends on the CO concentration in the home. For example, at 50 parts per million (ppm), you can be exposed for eight hours without symptoms. Sustained exposure at this level would eventually result in more dangerous build-up. On the other hand, at 12,800 ppm, a person can become unconscious and die within 1 to 3 minutes of exposure.
If you think you or anyone in your home has been exposed to carbon monoxide, call the national toll-free poison helpline at 1-800-222-1222. If the condition is severe, you should call 911.
These are the most common symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning.
- Upset stomach
- Shortness of breath
- Relief of symptoms when you are not at home
- More than one person in the house has similar symptoms.
- Pets seem sick
- You experience the above symptoms but miss other symptoms generally associated with the common cold and flu, such as fever, body aches, and enlarged lymph nodes.
How to find carbon monoxide leaks
The most common cause of CO leaks are poorly maintained or poorly ventilated gas appliances. But other things, such as clogged flues and chimneys and defective or limited exhaust fumes from cars, can also lead to a build-up of CO. Here are some ways to identify potential carbon monoxide leaks:
- Brownish or yellowish spots around appliances
- A pilot flame that goes out regularly
- Burner flame appears yellow instead of bright blue (exception: natural gas fires)
- No upward draft in chimney flue
- Musty smelling air
- Soot, smoke or drafts in the house
If you encounter any of these issues, take action quickly. The best way to avoid CO leaks is to have your home’s fuel-powered equipment thoroughly inspected every year.
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How to Prevent Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
Prevention is the best approach to carbon monoxide poisoning. Even if CO poisoning isn’t fatal, it can cause long-term or permanent damage to vital organs such as the brain, heart, and lungs. CO is known to be so harmful that there has long been a debate as to whether people poisoned by carbon monoxide can be organ donors. Suffice it to say, carbon monoxide poisoning is a serious problem with potentially long-lasting consequences. So, how can you prevent it from happening?
Carbon monoxide detectors
The National Fire Protection Agency recommends installing a carbon monoxide detector outside of every sleeping area and on every floor of your home. Also check local laws and building codes to ensure carbon monoxide alarms are installed wherever they are needed.
Make sure to install CO detectors that have an accredited testing lab, such as Underwriters’ Laboratories. If your home is a smart home, you can choose options like theinclude smoke and carbon monoxide detection. Regardless of which alarm you decide to install, do so according to the manufacturer’s instructions as they are tested for optimum accuracy and protection.
Test your CO detectors on the same schedule as your smoke detectors – once a month.
We mentioned this in finding and preventing CO leaks, but it’s worth noting. Have all your fuel-powered equipment inspected annually. When purchasing new appliances, make sure they are installed by a qualified professional. Also have your chimneys and flues inspected annually.
Not every CO problem originates in the living space of a home. Attached garages are common culprits. Be sure to remove fuel-burning equipment from the garage before starting them, and repair or replace any equipment that is not working properly. Never leave your car in the garage without the door open and have the exhaust system checked regularly for leaks.
If you live in an area prone to power outages and a, make sure to use the generator outdoors only.
No smoking indoors
Heavy smoking can cause carbon monoxide poisoning. In smokers, the concentration of carboxyhemoglobin (CO bound to hemoglobin) is usually between 3% and 8% and up to 15%, while in non-smokers it is usually 1%. If you smoke in an enclosed space, others may also suffer from CO.
The conclusion about carbon monoxide
Encountering carbon monoxide is unavoidable if you are running fuel-powered appliances or equipment in your home or garage. The goal is not to eliminate CO, but to prevent CO from building up in our living areas and vehicles and to take proper precautions to alert you if condensation occurs. A carbon monoxide detector is the best way to ensure that you are warned about carbon monoxide exposure before it becomes a greater health risk to you and your family.
The information in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended to be health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health care practitioner if you have any questions about a medical condition or health goals.