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Carbon Monoxide Silent Killer - How to Save a Life With Home Protection

Susanna Sisson's picture
Carbon Monoxide Alarm

It’s that time of year again. Temperatures are dropping and we’re turning up the heat. One danger is carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning which has been called the “silent killer” for good reason. But, did you know there are many other sources of CO that can kill you - including tobacco smoke?


The CDC estimates that approximately 500 people die from unintentional CO exposure in the United States every year and estimates that 8,000 to 15,000 people each year are treated for CO poisoning. Your pets are susceptible too. I once had a parrot die from CO poisoning. The good news is that carbon monoxide poisoning can be prevented with simple actions such as installing a CO alarm and maintaining fuel burning appliances.

Know the symptoms of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning

Carbon monoxide is an odorless, tasteless, colorless gas that binds to hemoglobin in the bloodstream effectively and efficiently choking a cells ability to carry vital oxygen causing serious tissue damage and brain injury. The symptoms are much like the flu – fatigue, dizziness, mild headache, breathlessness and nausea so don’t assume you’ve picked up a virus. With continued exposure symptoms become more severe and may progress to confusion, irritability, impaired judgment and coordination, loss of consciousness, and death.

While we most often hear of tragedies related to malfunctioning heating systems in an enclosed area, what most people don’t realize is CO poisoning is not restricted to inside your home or place of employment. Just recently there were three deaths that occurred in the same hotel room in in Boone, North Carolina due to elevated CO levels, however, according to officials, the source of the gas is unknown.

You can tell the difference between CO poisoning and the flu with these clues:

• You feel better when you are away from home
• Everyone is the home is sick at the same time (the flu is typically passed from person to person)
• The family members most effected spend the most time in the house
• Indoor pets appear ill
• You don’t have a fever or body aches, and you don’t have swollen lymph nodes that are common with the flu and some other infections
• Symptoms appear or seem to get worse when using fuel-burning equipment

Who is at greater risk of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning

Prolonged exposure to carbon monoxide levels of about 1 to 70 parts per million usually doesn't result in symptoms, although some heart patients may feel increased chest pain, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Headache, fatigue and nausea may occur when carbon monoxide levels increase and stay above 70 parts per million. Greater danger occurs above 150 to 200 parts per million.

People with respiratory conditions, such as asthma or emphysema, cardiovascular disease, anemia or sickle cell anemia are more at risk and may exhibit symptoms sooner than a healthy individual.
The elderly, young children and some pets such as birds or animals that are trying to get warm are at a greater risk for CO poisoning than adults. Individuals engaging in strenuous activity have also been found to be at greater risk. Remember, ANYONE can become sick and die from CO poisoning when exposed to very high levels.

If you have any of these symptoms, go outside and get fresh air immediately! if you believe you are experiencing any of these symptoms call the fire department. See a doctor immediately so that he or she can confirm carbon monoxide poisoning. Severe cases require treatment with hyperbaric oxygen therapy and supportive care in an intensive care unit.

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What are sources of CO exposure?
• Furnaces or boilers
• Gas stoves and ovens
• Fireplaces, both gas and wood burning
• Kerosene burning stoves
• Water heaters
• Clothes dryers
• Wood stoves
• Power generators
• Motor vehicles including boats and recreational vehicles
• Automobile exhaust from attached garages
• Power tools and lawn equipment
• Tobacco smoke

How can you avoid a tragedy?

• Install a carbon monoxide detector in the hallway near every area of your home that is used for sleeping. Make sure furniture or draperies do not cover the alarm. Like a smoke alarm it should be installed up near the ceiling. Travel carbon monoxide alarms are also available for use elsewhere. These devices usually last between 5-7 years so are a good investment. Make sure to check the battery just as you would a smoke alarm.
• Check to see that your appliances are installed properly and comply with building codes and manufacturer's instructions. Qualified professionals should install most appliances.
• Have your heating system professionally inspected every year including chimneys and flues.
• Don’t burn charcoal or kerosene inside your home, garage or tent.
• If you have an attached garage, don’t leave your car or lawnmower running.
• Don’t use bbq grills unless in a well ventilated area. They are not just a fire hazard, they can cause CO poisoning.
• Don’t use a portable generator or other gas powered tool in or near any house, garage or enclosed area and be cautious of using them near windows or doors.
• Maintain your vehicles including RV, 4-wheelers and boats.
• In the workplace if you are or other people are experiencing symptoms alert your employer and OSHA. You may just save a life!

Signs to look for when inspecting appliances or heater

• Streaks of soot around fuel-burning appliances, or fallen soot in a fireplace
• Absence of an upward draft in your chimney
• Excess moisture and condensation on windows, walls and cold surfaces
• Rusting on flue pipes or appliance jacks
• Orange or yellow flame in combustion appliances (the flame should be blue)
• Damaged or discolored bricks at the top of the chimney

NOTE: If a carbon monoxide alarm sounds, go outside and call 911 immediately. Do not return to the building until emergency services personnel gives you the all-clear.
Can CO poisoning occur in the summer?

More cases of CO poisoning occur during the winter months, but, there are situations where people can be exposed to high levels of CO during the summer. Vehicles including boats produce carbon monoxide. Devices such as camp stoves, barbecue grills and non-electric heaters are commonly used during recreational activities and also are sources of CO.

The CDC has noted that CO poisoning cases have resulted from the use of power generators during power outages such as have occurred during bad storms. Portable generators are capable of producing more carbon monoxide than modern cars and can kill people in a short amount of time. It is recommended that users place generators at least 25 feet away from and downwind of a house. Be sure that there are no vents or openings near the generator that would allow exhaust to enter into your home.

Remember an ounce of prevention can save your life and others.

Correction – I just spoke with a technician who works for the gas company and according to the information given in yearly certification classes, UNLIKE a smoke detector which is place up near the ceiling,, a carbon monoxide (CO) monitor should be placed near the floor. As most run on AC with a battery backup, he recommends a height of the usual AC household plugins. 11/13/2015

1. http://www.cdc.gov/co/pib.htm
2. http://www.cnn.com/2013/06/11/health/carbon-monoxide-explainer/
3. http://www.health.state.mn.us/divs/eh/indoorair/co/