You’ve no doubt heard of carbon monoxide poisoning, and perhaps you have a grasp of exactly what it is. If you’re like the average American homeowner, however, you aren’t really sure what carbon monoxide even is, or why it’s dangerous. It’s just something you hear warnings about every so often and think, “That would never happen in my home, so I don’t need to worry.”
Today, that’s going to change. We’re going to cover the topic from top to bottom and make you an expert in everything you need to know to protect yourself, your family and your home from this deadly gas. We’ll talk about what carbon monoxide is, why it’s dangerous, where it might be coming from and how to take preventive measures to ensure the safety of your household.
What Is Carbon Monoxide Poisoning?
Entirely odorless, colorless and impossible to detect on your own without any kind of aid, carbon monoxide is one of the most lethal gases found in households. Without a telltale sign, it can easily make its way into your home unnoticed. More than 400 people die from unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning annually. These numbers rise in the winter when people have their stoves, heaters and generators cranked up as high as they can go, making the colder season a particularly high-risk time of year.
What Are the Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning?
The low-level symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are quite similar to common flu symptoms, although there is typically no fever present with carbon monoxide poisoning. This is yet another reason carbon monoxide poisoning is so dangerous. Because it’s more likely to occur during the winter, which is also flu season, sufferers are likely to brush off their symptoms. They may assume they’re just suffering from the flu and will be better in a week or so.
If you or anyone you know begins to display these signs and symptoms, don’t assume it’s a case of the flu. Take the necessary steps and find out for sure. If it’s really just the flu, it won’t hurt, and if it turns out to be carbon monoxide poisoning, it might just save a life.
Low to moderate levels of exposure to carbon monoxide cause symptoms such as:
- Shortness of breath
With severe exposure to carbon monoxide, the symptoms will be much more intense, and may also include:
- Loss of muscular coordination
- Mental confusion
- Loss of consciousness
- Eventual death
Two different factors determine the severity of symptoms among people with carbon monoxide exposure. The first factor is how concentrated the carbon monoxide is at exposure. If it is a very small leak, releasing only the smallest amounts of carbon monoxide into the air, the symptoms will not be extremely severe, and vice versa.
If the concentration of carbon monoxide is extremely strong, it’s entirely possible the victim will skip over the milder symptoms, progressing straight to the loss of muscle control, confusion and loss of consciousness before ever realizing there is a problem.
The second factor is the duration of exposure. The longer the victim is exposed to carbon monoxide, the worse the symptoms will be, and the higher the likelihood that death will occur.
If you suspect you or a family member may be feeling the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning, move outside and into the fresh air as fast as possible. As soon as you are outside, call 911.
Below are details on some health effects caused by prolonged exposure to carbon monoxide. This list was compiled by various sources including the National Comfort Institution.
- 1-9 PPM – Acceptable ambient levels if not caused by vented applications
- 10-15 PPM – Acceptable short term levels from unvented appliances but not vented. Occupants need to be advised of elevated levels of carbon monoxide
- 15-20 PPM – World Health Organization lists this as the first level of carbon monoxide can cause ill effects
- 27 PPM – 21% Increase in cardio respiratory complaints – Kurt 1978
- 30 PPM – Earlier onset of exercise induces angina – World Health Organization
- 36-99 PPM – Excessive level. Advise occupants to seek fresh air, check for symptoms and ventilate area
- 100 PPM – Evacuate immediately. Advise occupants to check symptoms and seek medical attention
- 200 PPM – Accepted as causing ill effects in healthy adults (has caused death in some cases)
- 400 PPM – Life threatening to most after 2-3 hours
- 800 PPM – Unconscious to most after 1-2 hours, death after 2 hours
- 1600 PPM – Unconscious or death to most after one hour
- 3200 PPM – Death to most after 30 minutes
- 6400 PPM – Death to most after 10-15 minutes
- 12800 PPM – Death to most after 1-3 minutes
Clearly, carbon monoxide is a large threat if not monitored and detected. So what are some of the major places where it can appear in your home?
Where Does Carbon Monoxide Come From in Your Home?
If carbon monoxide is such a harmful gas, you might wonder where in the world it comes from, and how it can find its way into your home. You might be surprised to know such a toxic gas can come from the most innocent and ordinary of sources.
The general rule is any home appliance or piece of equipment that burns wood, propane, natural gas, oil, charcoal or coal is potentially a source of carbon monoxide in your home.
To prevent carbon monoxide leaks or accidents of a similar nature, it’s best to get a professional inspection of these appliances annually to ensure they are operating correctly. We also recommend using these appliances and pieces of equipment only as directed by the manufacturer. All manufacturers provide guidelines for how to operate your appliances correctly, with a minimal amount of risk.
Appliances and pieces of equipment that have the potential to introduce carbon monoxide into your home are:
- Water heaters
- Ovens and ranges
- Space heaters
- Wood-burning stoves
- Backup generators
- Propane and charcoal grills
- Cars and other automobiles
- Gas-powered lawn mowers
The odds are good that you own and regularly operate at least a few of the items on this list. Therefore, no matter how safe your home is otherwise, you are potentially at risk for carbon monoxide poisoning. With something as dangerous as this, it’s never safe to assume, “It won’t happen to me.” Take the initiative to have these appliances inspected for safety. Make sure to install these items correctly, and only use them as intended.
How Can You Prevent Carbon Monoxide Poisoning?
Now that we’ve discussed what carbon monoxide poisoning looks like and what causes it, it’s time to get practical. If common, everyday appliances have the potential to release this dangerous gas into your house, what can you do to minimize the danger and prevent any harm from coming to you and your family?
Below are a few of the best tips for preventing carbon monoxide poisoning.
1. Install Carbon Monoxide Monitors
Without a doubt, this is the single most important step you can take when it comes to preventing carbon monoxide poisoning, aside from being cautious to use your appliances correctly. However, it isn’t quite as simple as just buying a few detectors and installing them in random locations around the house. To be as effective as possible, there are a few key locations where you should install your carbon monoxide detectors. To create the best safety net, follow these guidelines on where to install your detectors.
- On every floor of your home, so you can hear the alarm no matter where you are
- Directly outside your sleeping areas, so no one sleeps through the alarm
- Near appliances that are potential hazards, but no closer than 15 feet. Otherwise, they may cause false alarms.
- On ceilings, since the hot air carrying the gas will rise
- Far from drafty areas such as windows, vents and air registers
- Far from bathrooms where steam and heat could cause false alarms
- Nowhere that receives direct sunlight, which can cause false alarms
The monitors installed in your home such as the NSI 3000 low level carbon monoxide monitor has a display that shows the PPM (Parts per Million) levels and can detect the gas. There are also audio warning levels built into the system such as beep every 8 seconds if more than 15 PPM is detected, a beep every 4 seconds if more than 35 PPM is detected, and a beep every 2 seconds if more than 70 PPM is detected.
It’s impossible to overestimate the importance of these detectors. Because carbon monoxide goes undetected by human senses, a CO detector is usually your only way of knowing toxic gas is in your house. By buying several of these detectors and installing them in key locations around your house, you’re significantly decreasing the danger to you and your family.
2. Test Your Carbon Monoxide Monitor System
It isn’t enough to just buy the detectors and install them. After all, they’re no good to you unless they work properly. Once they’re installed, you should test them to make sure they’re working correctly, and test them on a regular schedule. Periodic tests will ensure the detectors are still in good working order and are prepared to alert you to any threats that may arise.
While different models may have different procedures for testing, most methods of testing in the monitor system are seamless and quick. Our monitor systems are looking for low-level amounts of trace carbon monoxide which is important since CO gas is a cumulative poison. The slow build up in your bloodstream is often untraceable and will continue to remain in your blood, causing severe damage over time, even at very low levels.
3. Memorize the Signs and Symptoms
It isn’t enough to have a reference list of possible symptoms. For the highest level of safety, try to commit this list to memory. At the very least, remember mild symptoms tend to mirror flu-like symptoms. This way, if someone in your house begins to exhibit these symptoms, you’re aware of the possibility of something more sinister than the flu.
4. Clean Your Gas Dryer Filter
On the surface, it might not seem like your dryer has anything to do with carbon monoxide poisoning. You might be surprised, however. If your home has a gas dryer, the lint that collects in the filter could raise the risk of carbon monoxide leaking into your home.
Not only does all that lint pose a fire hazard, but it also blocks the vent, meaning the carbon monoxide produced in the machine has nowhere to go. Instead of being safely filtered away in the vent, it’s forced out into your living space. Thankfully, this is an easy fix. Clean the lint out of your filter regularly, and you shouldn’t have any problems.
5. Limit Your Exposure to Carbon Monoxide
One of the best ways you can reduce your risk of carbon monoxide poisoning is to reduce your exposure to it altogether. To do this, you can install UL-listed appliances that have been specifically rated for safe performance. You can also take the precaution of never running combustion appliances such as charcoal grills inside your home and never allow your car or lawn mower to idle inside your garage, even if the door is open. For extra protection in your home, seal the wall between your house and garage so no fumes from the garage can find their way inside your house.
6. Run Drills and Develop an Emergency Plan With Your Family
In schools and many workplaces, emergency drills such as fire drills are commonplace. Everyone knows the plan if an emergency occurs, and you run through the motions of this plan every so often, just to make sure it stays fresh in everyone’s mind.
Your home should be no different. To ensure your family knows what to do if the carbon monoxide alarm goes off, you should sit down and work out your emergency plan. Once the plan is set, it’s a good idea to run through this plan a few times, so everyone is sure of what to do if an emergency does happen.
Your emergency drill should include things like the importance of getting outside as soon as possible, as well as establishing a designated meeting place somewhere outside where everyone can gather for a headcount.
7. Get Your Appliances Serviced Regularly
We mentioned this earlier, but it’s so important it’s worth repeating in this section as well. You must get any appliance that is a potential source of carbon monoxide cleaned, inspected and serviced at least once a year. Hire a professional to do this, or do it yourself if you have the necessary experience. These tasks include things like cleaning the chimney, clearing out vents that may be blocked and other similar jobs.
All these steps may seem like an unnecessary hassle, but it’s impossible to overstate the importance of following them. By taking a few hours out of your schedule to clean and inspect your appliances, you’re actively taking steps toward securing the health and well-being of your entire household for the coming year.
And while your professional technician is cleaning and servicing your appliances, this is also the perfect time to test your carbon monoxide detectors. With these tasks done, you can rest easy until next year. Keep in mind, however, that although we recommend doing this at least once a year, you can certainly do it more often for added safety.