The leading cause of poisoning death in the USA is carbon monoxide or CO. CO is a by product of combustion and is produced any time a fuel is burned. These include your common carbon based fuels such as natural gas, coal, heating oil,kerosene,petrol and wood. Surprisingly though, it is also produced in smaller amounts by clothes dryers, water heaters, ovens and ranges. Fireplaces and running automobiles are also common culprits. Dangerous levels of CO can build up quickly from fuel burning appliances if they are not working properly or are not correctly installed and vented to the outside.
CO is odorless, colorless and makes no sound, hence it’s name the “silent killer”, but it is extremely poisonous to the body. Initially the effects of CO poisoning may feel like vague flu-like symptoms, such as headache, nausea, fatigue and mild disorientation. Prolonged exposure causes headache to become severe and brings with it dizziness, vomiting and shortness of breath. A few people have described a sort of metallic taste on the tongue, but CO is considered to be tasteless. The blood pressure rises and the skin turns pink. Drowsiness becomes overwhelming and leads to loss of consciousness. Depending on the speed and severity of the gas build up, the whole process can occur very swiftly. People may not even realize what is happening. Night time is especially deadly since sleeping makes one unaware of what is going on inside the body as the gas is breathed in. Children, elderly and pets are particularly vulnerable. Constant exposure of even a small amount over a period of days, weeks or months, can cause permanent brain damage.
Families can protect themselves by installing CO detectors. At the very least one should be present in the sleeping area of the home; ideally, outside every bedroom and on every level of the home. The detectors work by measuring the levels of CO in the air in what is referred to as parts per million, or ppm. Underwriters Laboratories (UL) Standard 2034 states that home detectors must alarm before levels reach 100 ppm. Also, they measure the levels over a time period of minutes. The alarm must sound before levels reach 100 ppm over 90 minutes, 200 ppm over 35 minutes or 400 ppm over 15 minutes. These alarm times should occur before an average, healthy adult begins to feel any symptoms, which in turn allows for evacuation time.
When a CO detector alarm sounds, everyone should move to the outside while one adult opens all windows and doors to provide ventilation. Someone should call 911 as well. No one should re-enter the home until the source of the CO is identified and corrected. This should be done by a qualified technician. The first responders who arrive will guide you with this. Since detectors do malfunction occasionally, most will state in the instruction pamphlet to press a “stop alarm” button and wait to see if it re alarms. It is in the best interest of children and elderly to get them out of the house anyway. CO detectors should be tested monthly just like your smoke alarms.
Just as important as having a CO detector, is simply making sure of the regular maintenance of all fuel burning systems in your home. Gas, coal and oil furnaces, along with chimneys and venting systems, should be regularly checked for debri, cracks, holes, or other blockages and leaks. Other systems that can produce CO and should be well maintained are gas heaters, dryers, wood stoves, fireplaces, water heaters and pilot lights.
Keep your family safe by respecting the silent killer that carbon monoxide is.