Each year, approximately 20,000 people in the United States visit the emergency room because of carbon monoxide poisoning. While many of those people are treated and released, on average, 400 people will die from carbon monoxide poisoning in a given year. Why is this gas so dangerous?
Carbon monoxide is odorless and tasteless, which means it’s difficult to detect a leak until a person becomes sick. And even then, the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning mimic those of the flu, making it difficult to identify.
When a leak does happen, it doesn’t discriminate. Young or old, healthy or sick, man or woman — everyone in your home is at risk of becoming ill if they are exposed to unhealthy levels of carbon monoxide. If anyone in your family has health problems already, the effects can be even more devastating.
It sounds scary and, yes, it can be frightening. There’s no way to sugar coat it — ignoring the risks can get you killed. But if you take the time to understand what carbon monoxide is and how you can prevent it from reaching your loved ones, then you can sleep well at night knowing your family is safe.
What Is Carbon Monoxide?
Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless gas found wherever fuel is burned. That means carbon monoxide sources include trucks, cars and small engines, as well as certain household appliances, including gas ranges, furnaces, fireplaces and grills. It can be released from natural gas, gasoline, coal, charcoal and wood, which means most people have at least one possible source of carbon monoxide in or around their home.
When a person breathes it in, CO prevents blood cells from carrying enough oxygen throughout their body. When your body doesn’t have the proper amount of oxygen it needs, then it can’t function as it should. Vital organs can’t work right, and you become very sick.
Does CO exposure make everyone sick? Yes and no.
Carbon monoxide levels are often referenced when talking about air pollution because it is also a problem outdoors, especially in areas with a lot of industrial production or high-density areas where there are a large number of cars and trucks on the roads. It’s a big factor in air pollution, and there’s a lot of information out there about what it does when it’s released into the air in high doses.
Typically, when you hear people discussing carbon monoxide poisoning, it’s referring to what happens when dangerous levels of carbon monoxide enter a home. When CO is released into a poorly-ventilated indoor space, its effects rapidly intensify.
In those cases, exposure to extremely high levels of CO can quickly cause damage to the brain and heart. Or, depending on how high the levels of CO are — and how quickly they rise — the damage may occur more slowly over time.
Sources of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning in Homes
Carbon monoxide is a potential risk anywhere fuel burns. To identify potential sources of a leak in your home, the easiest thing to do is to identify anywhere you know that’s burning fuel of some kind. That means you need to investigate to determine whether your home contains common sources of carbon monoxide poisoning, including a:
- Water heater
- Gas stove/oven
- Gas-powered space heaters
- Clothes dryer
- Power tools and lawn equipment
- An attached garage that regularly houses vehicles
Yes, this is a list of some of the most common household appliances. And no, not all of these are powered by fuel. Your home may have a water heater and stove powered by electricity. Or, maybe you don’t have a chimney. But, most houses in the United States today face some risk of carbon monoxide poisoning from at least one of these items. If you aren’t aware of this, then you won’t be able to take the proper steps to protect your home from unsafe CO levels.
Safe Carbon Monoxide Levels
Measured in parts per million (ppm), carbon monoxide is generally considered to be safe as long as the CO levels inside stay below 70 ppm. These levels ensure that indoor CO levels don’t exceed outdoor levels. When they exceed outdoor CO levels, that’s when problems arise.
As levels rise above 70ppm, the effects — both short-term and long-term — will depend on the age and overall health of those who are exposed. Young children, elderly adults and anyone with a history of breathing problems are at a higher risk of experiencing the effects of exposure to CO — however, this should not be taken to mean that healthy adults can’t and won’t get sick. Anyone, regardless of age or health history, can become ill when they are exposed to higher levels of CO.
If you have family members with health problems, particularly asthma or heart problems, they may be the first to experience problems. People with heart problems are at risk of experiencing chest pains even before CO levels begin to rise over 70ppm.
When carbon monoxide levels in the home exceed safe limits, the residents of that home may initially think they are experiencing the flu because the symptoms are similar. Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include:
- Weakness and dizziness
- Nausea and vomiting
- Chest pain
When people are exposed to lower doses of CO over time, they may experience these symptoms at home, but then start feeling better when they leave to go to work or run errands. Another telling sign is if the entire family — including pets — is displaying similar symptoms and no one runs a fever or improves in their condition.
If you or your loved ones are experiencing these symptoms and you suspect carbon monoxide poisoning, leave your house immediately and seek medical attention. It’s important to get help as quickly as possible to prevent continued exposure and long-term effects of CO poisoning.
How to Prevent Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
It’s important to know the signs and symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, but the best way to avoid exposure is to know how to prevent it from happening in the first place. In many cases, CO poisoning could have been prevented with a few easy steps. It can be tempting to put off installing a CO detector or scheduling preventative maintenance of an appliance, but maintaining your home and taking precautions will keep your family safe and reduce your risk of CO exposure.
If you aren’t sure where to start, then you’re in the right place! When it comes to preventing carbon monoxide poisoning, there are several things you can do to protect your home and your family.
1. Know Your Home
You should know which appliances in and around your house are at risk of producing carbon monoxide. Is your furnace powered by natural gas? Are you cooking on a gas stove? Does your power washer require gasoline to run?
Walk around your home and, if you need to, write down all the appliances that fall into this category. Some homes will have several, while others may only have one. However, in these modern times, it’s highly unlikely that you won’t have at least one appliance or spot in your home that puts you at risk for CO poisoning, so make sure you take the time to investigate.
2. Purchase and Install Carbon Monoxide Detectors
Installing a battery-operated carbon monoxide detector is the best way to protect your family from potential problems. Similar to a smoke detector, these detectors are designed to measure the levels of CO in your home and alert you if they are too high. Where should you install a CO detector? The best option is to install a CO detector in every major area of your home — kitchen, living room and bedrooms. It’s especially important to install CO detectors close to any of the appliances you identified as fuel burning.
While installing several CO detectors is ideal, we realize your budget may not allow for you to purchase and install that many all at one time. If you do need to spread them out, start by installing one near the bedrooms in your home. That way, your family will hear the alarm if it goes off and have time to remove your family from the house. If you’re able, add additional detectors in the other major areas listed above.
3. Regularly Check Carbon Monoxide Detectors
Once you’ve installed carbon monoxide detectors, it’s essential to maintain them. If they aren’t working, they can’t protect you and your family. A good rule of thumb is to replace the batteries in your CO detectors during daylight savings changes in March and November. By having this regular reminder, you don’t have to rely on your memory or a to-do list to keep these in proper working order.
Carbon monoxide detectors are long-lasting, but they don’t last forever. Plan to replace the entire unit every five years to make sure your home and your family are always adequately protected.
4. Service Fuel-Burning Appliances Regularly
Water heaters, heating systems, gas cooking ranges, gas fireplaces and any other appliances that burn oil, gas or coal should be serviced every year to prevent a break or malfunction that could result in a CO leak. It can be tempting to put off preventative maintenance or assume that it’s fine if it’s working, but neglecting these appliances can result in broken pipes or vents that leak CO into your home.
5. Make Sure Appliances Have Proper Ventilation
Ensure that your gas appliances are properly ventilated. Hire a professional to install them if you can or, at the very least, have them inspected and correct any problems with the ventilation system to prevent CO leaks.
6. Schedule Regular Chimney Inspections
Have your chimney checked — and cleaned if needed — once a year. This prevents a build-up of debris and dirt in the chimney that can trap CO and send it back into your house.
7. Practice Safe Generator Usage
Many people rely on generators as a backup source of power after a storm. If you use a generator indoors, it should be within 20 feet of a window, door or vent. And, always make sure you have at least one working battery-powered or battery-backup CO detector to alert you if the generator is increasing the CO levels in your home.
8. Don’t Cut Corners
If you discover that a vent pipe is cracked or broken, never patch it with tape or gum. Using these to patch a hole can result in a build-up of carbon monoxide in your home. If you don’t know the correct way to repair these types of pipes, call a qualified professional to repair the pipe and make sure it can safely vent CO out of your home.
9. Never Grill Indoors
Yes, grilling is fun, but you should never do it inside. Charcoal, propane and other gasses used to power grills and camp stoves can release CO and, if used indoors, the CO can build up to unsafe levels. Grilling should always happen outdoors to make sure CO does not build up in your home.
10. Don’t Start a Car or Lawn Equipment in a Closed Garage
This is perhaps one of the most well-known examples of how carbon monoxide can hurt someone, but it still needs to be said. A car should never be started when a garage door is closed. This is dangerous to anyone in the car and, if your garage is attached to your home, it can also send high levels of carbon monoxide into the house, as well.
While lawn equipment such as a mower or power washer isn’t typically as big or powerful as a car, it can still produce unhealthy levels of carbon monoxide that will quickly build up if the garage door is closed. Make sure the door is always open before starting any vehicles or lawn equipment and, if you can, wait to start a mower or other power tools until you bring them out into the yard or driveway.
The Importance of Quick Detection
In a perfect world, everything in your house would work perfectly all the time. Your appliances wouldn’t break or leak, and your family would be safe. But life isn’t always perfect. Things break, and appliances malfunction. When CO begins to leak into your home after a break or malfunction, it can come in without warning.
You can’t smell, see or taste carbon monoxide. If it’s presence isn’t detected quickly, it can result in illness and death.
Serving New England for more than 40 years, Wayne Alarm has been recognized around the world for providing products and services that protect your home from many dangers, including carbon monoxide. Your family is our family — and we are committed to helping you keep them safe. We do this with state-of-the-art carbon monoxide detectors that will alert you when there is a problem and help you get your family to safety at any time of the day or night.
If you burn coal, oil, gas or wood anywhere in your home, then you are at risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. Let us help you keep your loved ones safe. Contact us today to get started.