Facts & Warnings About Carbon Monoxide

While people are aware of the many risks around them on a daily basis, most are generally unfamiliar with Carbon Monoxide (CO), and the threat it poses to their safety.  Carbon monoxide is a lethal poison gas and is the number one cause

of poisoning deaths in the United States.  Learn more about carbon monoxide, it's causes, warning signs, effects and how you can protect yourself and your family from this deadly gas.

  • What is Carbon Monoxide (CO)?

CO is a colorless, tasteless and odorless compound produced by the incomplete combustion of carbon-containing materials, such as gasoline, propane, natural gas, oil or wood.  CO also may occur due to a malfunctioning fuel-burning device or other fuel-burning source.

  • What are the sources of CO?

Common sources of CO include open flames such as fireplaces, furnaces, space heaters, water heaters, blocked chimneys, boilers, cigarette smoke, generators or running a vehicle engine in a closed space such as a garage.

  • Who is at risk from CO poisoning?

Everyone is at risk for CO poisoning.  Infants, the elderly, people with chronic heart disease, anemia or breathing problems are more likely to get sick from CO.  Each year, more than 400 Americans die from unintentional CO poisoning not linked to fires, more than 20,000 visit the emergency room and more than 4,000 are hospitalized.

  • What are the symptoms of CO poisoning?

The most common symptoms of CO poisoning are fatigue, drowsiness, headaches, impaired judgement, shortness of breath, confusion, low blood pressure, rapid heartbeat, chest pain, nausea, vomiting.  The severity of symptoms of CO are influenced by three main factors:

  1.  the concentration of CO in the environment;
  2.  how long the exposure lasts, and;
  3.  work load and breathing rate.
Other important things to note regarding CO symptoms:
  • CO symptoms are often described as 'flu-like', but without a fever.
  • CO inhibits your blood's capacity to carry oxygen.
  • People who are sleeping or intoxicated can die from CO poisoning before they have symptoms.
  • High levels of poisoning can lead to loss of consciousness and muscular coordination, and eventually death.
  • Pets are typically poisoned by CO before people.
  • CO poisoning may be mistaken for symptoms of other illnesses such as colds, flu or even food poisoning.
  • How can I protect myself and my family from CO poisoning?

There are numerous ways to protect yourself and those around you from CO poisoning.  As with many things, prevention is of key importance.

  1.  Install a battery-operated or hard-wired CO detector with a back-up battery in your home and check or replace the battery when you change the time on your clocks each spring and fall.  Place your detector where it will wake you up if it alarms, such as the hallway outside your bedroom.  If your home has multiple levels, then you should install an alarm on each level.  Consider buying a detector with a digital readout.  This type of detector can tell you the highest level of CO concentration in your home in addition to alarming.  Replace your CO detector every five years.

  2.  Have your heating system, water heater and any other gas, oil, coal or wood appliances inspected and serviced by a qualified contractor annually.

  3. Do not use portable flameless heaters indoors.

  4. Do not use portable gas grills indoors.

  5. When you purchase appliances that are natural gas or propane operated, buy only appliances that carry the seal of a national testing agency, such as Underwriters' Laboratories (UL).

  6. Make sure all natural gas or propane appliances are properly vented to the outdoors.

  7. Have your chimney inspected annually.  Chimneys can be blocked by debris and this can cause CO to build up inside your home.

  8. Never use a gas range or oven for heating your home.

  9. Never use a generator inside your home, basement, or garage or less than 20 feet from any window, door or vent.

Safety concerns regarding running motor vehicles:

  • Have a mechanic check the exhaust system of your vehicle annually.  A small leak in the exhaust system can lead to a build-up of CO inside the vehicle.

  • Never run your vehicle inside a garage that is attached to a house even with the garage door open.  Always open the door to a detached garage to let in fresh air when you run a vehicle inside.

  • If you drive a vehicle with a tailgate such as an SUV, when you open the tailgate, open the vents or windows to allow air to move through.  If only the tailgate is open, CO from the exhaust will be pulled into the vehicle.

  • What should I do if my detector is beeping or alarming?

It is important to know in advance what type of detectors and alarms you have throughout your home in advance of an issue.  Many people have smoke alarms that also function as CO detectors.  The significance of different beeping might mean different things for different types of detectors.  If the battery is low in your detector, you will likely hear a short chirp about once every minute.

To warn of dangerous CO levels, most detectors will beep 4 or 5 times in a row about every 4 seconds.  Do not mistake dangerous levels of poisonous gas for a detector with a low battery!  Even if no one in the building is experiencing symptoms yet, if there is a chance your detector is signaling carbon monoxide, get everyone outside to fresh air.

As soon as your are outside the building, call the nearest emergency services (911) or your local fire department.  Check that your family members and any visitors have made it out of the building as well.  If you notice someone might be missing, do not re-enter the building.  You can let emergency services know who you think may still be inside.

It is always a good idea to have an escape plan in place for fire or carbon monoxide emergencies.  This will help everyone in the building be aware of what to do and where to meet when there is an emergency.

A & K Services of Iowa values your safety and has posted this material as an informative guide to carbon monoxide.  If you still have questions or concerns regarding carbon monoxide or any other building concern, please feel free to contact us.  We will do the best we can to find a solution to your problem.