Carbon monoxide (chemical formula - CO) is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, and toxic gas. Nicknamed "the silent killer," carbon monoxide is totally undetectable by human senses and can kill you before you are even aware it is in your home. If there is carbon monoxide in the air you breathe, it will enter your blood system the same way oxygen does, through your lungs. The carbon monoxide displaces the oxygen in your blood, depriving your body of oxygen. When the carbon monoxide displaces enough oxygen, you suffocate.
At lower levels of exposure, CO causes mild effects that are often mistaken for the flu. These symptoms include headaches, dizziness, disorientation, nausea, and fatigue. Exposure to high concentrations of carbon monoxide will cause throbbing headaches, breathing difficulties, confusion and loss of consciousness, cardiac problems and/or death.
The effects of CO exposure can vary greatly from person to person, depending on age, overall health, and the concentration and length of exposure. Everyone is at risk for CO poisoning. Medical experts believe that unborn babies, children, senior citizens, and people with heart or lung problems are at an even greater risk for CO poisoning.
The Dangers of Carbon Monoxide
According to the United States Fire Administration, more than 150 people die from accidental non-fire related CO poisoning associated with consumer products. Since carbon monoxide is a by-product of incomplete combustion, any fuel-burning appliance, vehicle, or tool that is inadequately vented or maintained can be a potential source of carbon monoxide gas. Examples of fuel-burning equipment include:
- Gas and oil fueled space heaters
- Gas and oil fueled water heaters
- Gas clothes dryers
- Gas fireplaces, both vented and wireless
- Gas lawnmowers and power tools
- Gas ranges and ovens
- Wood-burning fireplaces and stoves
Carbon Dioxide Protection
There are simple steps you can take to protect yourself and your family from deadly carbon dioxide fumes:
1. The first line of defense is prevention or minimizing the potential for exposure to carbon monoxide gas. People are at an increased risk of carbon monoxide poisoning during the winter months. Well-insulated, airtight homes (primarily newer construction) and malfunctioning heating equipment can produce dangerously high and potentially deadly concentrations of carbon monoxide.
- Burn charcoal inside a home, cabin, or camper.
- Operate gasoline powered engines (generators, cutting saws, etc.) in confined spaces such as garages or basements.
- Idle your car inside the garage.
- Use gas ovens or ranges to heat your home.
- Have your home-heating systems, fuel-burning appliances, flues and chimneys inspected, cleaned and tuned up annually by a qualified technician.
- Make regular visual inspections of fuel-burning appliances such as your gas dryer and hot water heater.
- During and after a snowstorm, make sure vents for the gas dryer, furnace, stove and fireplace are clear of snow build-up.
2. The second line of defense is a carbon monoxide detector alarm. A properly working carbon monoxide detector alarm can provide an early warning, before deadly gases build up to dangerous levels. Install CO detector alarms:
- On each floor of your home
- In bedrooms or sleeping areas if you sleep with closed doors
- In the area of any fuel-burning appliance (more than five feet away) such as a furnace or water heater
- With a digital display that indicates the CO level
Where not to put a CO Detector
However, do not install a CO detector alarm:
- Near ceiling fans
- In bathrooms or other rooms with long term exposure to steam and humidity
- In kitchens or within 5 feet of any cooking appliance
What Should I do if My Carbon Monoxide Detector Alarm Goes Off
If your alarm sounds, first and foremost, Stay Calm. Most situations resulting in activation of a carbon monoxide detector alarm are not life threatening, but an early warning of a potential problem. Carbon monoxide alarms are designed to sound before there is an immediate life threat. The alarm will also sound when the battery is low or the unit is malfunctioning.
For your own peace of mind and safety you should familiarize yourself and family members with the alarm sound patterns:
- A Low Battery or malfunction signal or warning will be a single "chirp" every 30 to 60 seconds. On some models there may also be a visual indicator, typically a flashing red light labeled Battery or Service.
- A CO alarm will sound a pattern of four short beeps every five seconds. There is also a red flashing light on the face of the unit when CO has been detected.
If the CO Alarm Is Activated
- Silence the alarm by pushing the reset/silence button.
- Ventilate the house or dwelling space by opening the windows.
- Check to see if any members of the household are experiencing flu-like symptoms.
- Evacuate the household to a safe location.
- Call 911. Be prepared to provide your address and whether anyone in the household is feeling ill with flu-like symptoms.
If your CO alarm reactivates within a 24-hour period, call 911 and move to fresh air. The source of the CO will need to be further investigated. Contact a qualified appliance technician to inspect all your fuel burning equipment and appliances for possible malfunction. Exposure to the vapors from various household substances (such as paints and paint thinners, adhesives, hair spray, strong perfumes, plug-in and aerosol air fresheners, and household cleaning solvents with strong odors (like pine)) may cause your CO alarm to render a false alarm. Be sure to store and use these substances away from your carbon monoxide detector alarm or in a well-ventilated space.
Maintaining Smoke & Carbon Monoxide Detector Alarms
- Test the alarms (alarms have test buttons) at least once a month, even if your alarm uses a long-life battery or is powered by household electricity.
- Replace batteries at least once a year, in the spring or the fall when clocks are changed for daylight saving time. (Change Your Clock, Change Your Battery.)
- A "chirping" sound from the alarm is a warning that the battery is low. Replace the battery immediately.
- Never paint over alarms.
- Clean your alarms regularly by dusting or vacuuming.
- Replace smoke alarms at least every 10 years.
- Replace carbon monoxide detector alarms every 5 to 7 years.
The sole function of smoke and carbon monoxide detector alarms are to sound a warning. Develop and practice an escape plan to use this precious time.
Note: Installing a carbon monoxide detector alarm does not eliminate the need for a smoke alarm in your home. Carbon monoxide detector alarms do not sense smoke and smoke alarms do not sense carbon monoxide gas.