Carbon Monoxide Safety

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are an average of 400 accidental non-fire carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning deaths in the U.S. every year. The Consumer Product Safety Commission reports that 60% of those deaths occur from November through February as people use furnaces, generators, and fuel-burning space heaters to keep warm. So what is carbon monoxide, and how do you keep yourself and your family safe from the disorienting and even fatal effects of CO poisoning?


What Is Carbon Monoxide?

Carbon monoxide, or CO, is poisonous, odorless, colorless, tasteless gas. It is produced as a result of the incomplete combustion of gasoline, kerosene, oil, propane, coal, or wood.

How Does CO Harm You?

Most often, any carbon monoxide in the ambient atmosphere is inhaled. But in higher concentrations, CO can also be absorbed through the skin. Regardless, once CO enters the body, it enters your bloodstream and takes the place of oxygen, depriving your brain, heart, and other vital organs of oxygen. In essence, carbon monoxide will suffocate you from within. This is called CO poisoning.

Because of their smaller size and lower volume of blood, infants, small children, and pets will be the first to suffer from CO poisoning.


How Can I Become Exposed to Carbon Monoxide?

According to the CPSC, the most common non-fire exposure to carbon monoxide comes from running fuel-powered generators in homes, garages, and carports, or operating these generators near doors, windows, or vents.

There are other common sources. Any gas-powered appliance inside your home can quickly generate CO if they malfunction. These appliances include gas furnaces, water heaters, ranges, clothes dryers, fireplaces, and space heaters. Again, these appliances are perfectly safe under normal conditions, but have the potential to generate carbon monoxide if they malfunction.

In addition, running your automobile in an attached ;garage or lighting a charcoal grill indoors will quickly create dangerous, if not deadly, concentrations of CO.


What Are the Symptoms of CO Poisoning?

In low concentrations, the symptoms of CO poisoning are very similar to flu symptoms (but without the fever). They include:

  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness

Higher concentrations of carbon monoxide result in progressively more severe symptoms, including:

  • Mental confusion
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of muscular coordination
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Ultimately, death

It’s important to note that the severity of symptoms is directly related to both the concentration of CO and the duration of exposure. For slowly developing residential CO problems, occupants and/or their physicians may mistake mild to moderate CO poisoning symptoms for the flu, which sometimes results in tragic deaths. For rapidly developing, high-level CO exposures (caused by things like using generators in residential spaces or running automobiles in attached garages), victims can rapidly become mentally confused or can lose muscle control without having first experienced milder symptoms; they will likely die if not quickly rescued.


Safety Tips

  • Install battery-operated CO alarms or hard-wired CO alarms with battery backup in your home outside separate sleeping areas.
  • Have your home heating system (including any chimneys and vents) inspected and serviced annually by a qualified service technician.
  • Have fuel-burning appliances installed in accordance with manufacturers’ instructions and local building codes by qualified professionals. Do not attempt to service fuel-burning appliances unless you have the proper knowledge, skills, and tools.
  • Never operate a portable generator or any other gasoline engine-powered tool either in or near an enclosed space such as a garage, house, or other building. Even with open doors and windows, these spaces can trap CO and allow it to quickly build to lethal levels.
  • Never burn charcoal inside a home, garage, vehicle, or tent.
  • Never leave a vehicle running in an attached garage, even with the door open.
  • Never use gas appliances like ranges, ovens, or clothes dryers to heat your home.
  • When using a fireplace, open the damper before lighting a fire and keep it open until the ashes are completely cool. An open damper may help prevent the build-up of poisonous gases within the home.


If You Suspect CO Poisoning, or if Your CO Detector Activates

  • If you suspect CO poisoning or even the presence of CO inside your home, get outside to fresh air immediately!
  • Call 9-1-1 after you leave.
  • Do not allow anyone else to enter your home until the fire department arrives; likewise, do not go back into your home for any reason until the fire department advises you that your home is safe.


Information reproduced from the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.