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Carbon Monoxide: The Silent Killer

It was February 2014. A malfunctioning propane-fired furnace in a Manchester, New Hampshire home sent wafts of carbon monoxide gas into the interior. Three people died and one more was rushed to the hospital.

The disaster could have been avoided if the CO detector’s batteries were working. The concentration of CO gas reached 400 parts per million (ppm), but the detector would have gone off at only 35 ppm.

What is Carbon Monoxide?

This toxic gas is colorless, odorless and undetectable to the human senses. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, about 170 people die from CO poisoning in the US every year.

Normal concentrations of carbon monoxide in a home range from 0.5 to 5 ppm. The gas becomes dangerous at about 70 ppm, and death is a real possibility at sustained concentrations of 150 to 200 ppm or higher.

Where does Carbon Monoxide Come From?

CO is the byproduct of incomplete oxidation during combustion. Any appliance or equipment that burns natural gas, oil, wood, coal, charcoal, kerosene or propane generates carbon monoxide. The risk comes when fuel-burning appliances are used in enclosed spaces and without proper ventilation.

Specific sources of CO gas include:

  • Furnaces and boilers
  • Gas-powered stoves
  • Kerosene space heaters
  • Water heaters
  • Portable generators
  • Lawn mowers
  • Wood-burning fireplaces and stoves
  • Charcoal grills
  • Car exhaust
  • Tobacco smoke

Why is Carbon Monoxide so Harmful?

When too much CO gas is in the air, it binds to the hemoglobin in your blood, taking up the binding sites that oxygen usually occupies. This prevents your blood from transporting oxygen around your body, causing you to suffocate. Even at quite low concentrations, you may still suffer lasting effects of CO poisoning because the carbon monoxide molecules bond so strongly to the hemoglobin that it’s difficult for them to release.

What are the Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning?

The initial symptoms of low-level carbon monoxide exposure mimic the flu, but without the fever. You may have a headache, feel fatigued, and suffer from shortness of breath, nausea and dizziness. People with heart disease may also experience chest pain.

At higher concentrations, symptoms include impaired vision, loss of muscle coordination, mental confusion, vomiting, reduced brain function, unconsciousness and death.

The type and severity of these symptoms depend on the duration of exposure. Milder symptoms only appear if you are exposed to low-level CO concentrations for days or longer. Unexplained and lasting flu symptoms should be taken seriously. In cases of rapid poisoning, such as when a portable generator is run indoors, victims become confused and lose muscle control quickly without experiencing the milder symptoms first. If the people are not rescued, this situation is often fatal.

How to Prevent Exposure to Carbon Monoxide

Your first defense again CO gas is to install carbon monoxide detectors throughout your home. Aim to have one on each floor of your home, especially near sleeping areas so you wake up if the alarm sounds in the middle of the night.

These devices are designed to sound the alarm before life-threatening levels of CO are reached. Still, if your CO detectors go off, get outside where you can breathe fresh air immediately. Then call the fire department to come check out the building and identify the source of the gas.

Test your CO detectors once a month to ensure they work when you need them most. Change the batteries yearly for uninterrupted operation.

Other tips include the following:

  • Rely on professionals for combustion equipment installation. Have appliances serviced annually to ensure safe operation and proper venting.
  • Make sure the chimney flue is open before lighting a fire. Have the chimney cleared of debris once a year.
  • Never run a portable generator or grill indoors, including in the garage.
  • Do not leave your car idling in an attached garage. Even with the door open wide, CO gas can build up and leak into your home.
  • Never use gas appliances such as ovens, stovetops or clothes dryers to heat your home.

Carbon monoxide is clearly something to take seriously. For more information about protecting your family from exposure to this silent killer, please contact Rainbow International®. We offer remediation services following traumatic events to restore good indoor air quality.

 

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