Fighting the Invisible Killer: Carbon Monoxide
Fighting the Invisible Killer at Home: Carbon Monoxide
The clear and odorless gas carbon monoxide (CO) is both naturally occurring and a byproduct of manmade combustion. More important: It is poisonous to humans and animals.
Defective furnaces, fireplaces, flues, and oil heaters are most frequently responsible for accidental CO poisonings. When improperly vented, malfunctioning home appliances like furnaces and air-conditioners can slowly fill your home with CO.
In the United States, CO leaks are responsible for an estimated 400 deaths a year and more than 20,000 trips to the emergency room, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, as CO poisoning often goes unreported, the number of instances is most likely much higher.
What can you look for?
CO is dangerous because there tend to be no noticeable symptoms if an individual's CO levels are at less than 10% in the bloodstream.
Above 10%, CO poisoning symptoms may mimic the flu or a cold. At that level, symptoms may include:
- Mild confusion
- Irregular breathing and heartbeat
Take note especially if everyone in the home is experiencing at least some of the symptoms, and pay particular attention if pets exhibit symptoms, since animals cannot get the flu.
When CO levels exceed 20%, the poisoning can be fatal.
What should you do?
If you suspect that you or members of your family are suffering from CO poisoning:
- Evacuate your home; get everyone outdoors immediately.
- Call 9-1-1 from another location.
- Report it to the fire department, even if everyone is feeling better.
How can you prevent CO poisoning?
Taking a small amount of time to manage your home's risks will greatly protect you and your family.
Have your furnace and gas appliances inspected and maintained by a qualified contractor once a year. This should be done before the start of the heating months.
And keep in mind that space heaters, ovens, and any gasoline-powered engines can cause a buildup of carbon monoxide. If you suspect the appliance or tool you're using might be causing a buildup of CO, play it safe and open a window. If you're working in the garage, open the door. Ventilation is a sure way to disperse a buildup of the gas.
Install a CO detector on each level of your home, and in or near each sleeping area. You can also hook them up to a smart home system to send a message to your smartphone if it is detected when you're not at home. While you shouldn't rely solely on CO detectors, having them properly placed throughout your home can serve as a good fail-safe.
Try to keep the detectors at least 20 feet from any fuel-burning appliances and at least 10 feet from high humidity locations like bathrooms and kitchens, as moisture can sometimes trigger faulty readings. Test the batteries of your detector regularly, and if an alarm sounds, call a professional to check your gas-burning appliances.
Visit the CDC website for more information about carbon monoxide poisoning.