There’s a killer on the loose that will never appear on a most wanted list, even though it leaves almost 500 Americans dead in their own homes and thousands more hospitalized each year.
Not even the most advanced surveillance cameras or motion detectors can see it. You’ll never hear anything go bump in the night or catch a whiff of any mysterious odor as it approaches. It sneaks up in plain sight and kills without firing a shot. The killer we’re warning you about is the sinister gas known as carbon monoxide, or just CO.
According to the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), CO is the leading cause of accidental poisoning deaths in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports around 15,000 emergency room visits each year.
For example, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the winds and the storm surge weren’t the only dangers — many residents succumbed to CO poisoning caused by generators after the electricity was cut.
So what is carbon monoxide poisoning and how can you protect yourself from its harmful effects?
What Is Carbon Monoxide?
Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas that can be fatal in large enough quantities. It is produced by the burning of various fuels, such as coal, wood, charcoal, propane, or kerosene. The most common sources of carbon monoxide in the home are fuel-burning appliances that emit CO when you use them. Appliances that can or do produce CO include the following:
- Lawn mowers
- Water heaters
- Space heaters
- Outdoor grills
According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, most deaths and illnesses from CO poisoning are caused by malfunctioning appliances, or improper usage.
Even when you’re not using these types of appliances, the walls of most homes and apartments are porous, meaning that gasses like CO can easily seep in from the outside.
What Are the Effects of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning on the Body?
Like any other gas, CO enters your body through your lungs when you inhale. From your lungs it gets picked up by your red blood cells where it binds to hemoglobin — in place of the oxygen your body actually needs to function properly. And that’s precisely what gives CO its killing power: carbon monoxide in the blood interferes with the transportation of oxygen to your cells, and literally starves your body of oxygen.
When high carbon monoxide levels accumulate in your body, it can produce symptoms that feel similar to the flu but without a fever. Commonly reported symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include the following:
- Shortness of breath
If these initial symptoms are left untreated, or if the carbon monoxide exposure is not stopped, more severe consequences will set in:
- Mental confusion
- Loss of muscular coordination
- Loss of consciousness
Excessive CO exposure can also lead to permanent brain damage or lung damage.
What is considered to be a safe level of carbon monoxide? That depends mainly on the level and duration of exposure. An atmospheric concentration of about 1 in 70 parts per million (ppm) — or lower — is considered safe for most people. However, individuals with certain health conditions, such as heart patients, may experience symptoms at lower levels of CO exposure.
When levels of carbon monoxide exceed 1 in 70 ppm, many people will experience mild symptoms. More severe symptoms, including unconsciousness and even death, are possible when CO levels exceed 1 in 150 ppm, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
How To Prevent Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
Detecting and preventing carbon monoxide poisoning are key when it comes to protecting yourself and your family from poisoning.
#1 Use Appliances Correctly
Always install and use all appliances in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions and local regulations. Consider having appliances installed by qualified professionals if you are unsure how to do it correctly, and have your heating system inspected annually by a qualified electrician. Check chimneys and vents for blockage which could allow CO concentrations to reach unsafe levels inside the home.
#2 Make Sure Appliances Are Working Properly
Although all combustible appliances produce some CO, most are designed to prevent unsafe exposure levels if used properly and if they are kept in good condition. Use care when repairing or servicing appliances. Hire a professional if you’re unsure how to repair an appliance safely.
#3 Never Use Fuel-Burning Appliances Indoors
A generator can be a great investment for supplying electricity to your home when the power goes out. Because generators burn fuels such as gasoline, however, you must NEVER use a generator indoors. Likewise, if you’re cooking out on a charcoal grill, you must use it outdoors because charcoal releases CO when you burn it. Never leave your car running in an attached garage, even with the door open.
In 2013, the CDC reported that only 30% of U.S. households had at least one carbon monoxide detector installed, but the fact is that CO detectors save lives. Several years ago, 124 cases of CO poisoning were reported during an ice storm in North Carolina. Of those cases, 96% of them involved individuals without a CO detector in the home.
No matter what other precautions you take, there is always a risk that CO concentrations will still reach unsafe levels inside your home. For that reason, you must have a CO detector installed.
Where to Place Carbon Monoxide Detectors
The National Fire Protection Agency recommends installing at least one CO detector on each floor of your home. A great place to put them is near sleeping areas. Depending on where you live, different jurisdictions may have requirements on where to install CO detectors.
If you live in an apartment building, all units should be equipped with CO detectors. Why? Because once CO penetrates the building envelope, it can go anywhere in that building, including through most walls.
How to Get a Carbon Monoxide Detector
Many people mistakenly believe that smoke detectors automatically detect carbon monoxide as well. Although there are some combination smoke and carbon monoxide detectors available, not all smoke detectors have this feature, so you must check. Sometimes you can also have smoke and carbon monoxide detectors integrated with your home security system.
You can get battery operated or plug-in models. The alarm will sound before life-threatening levels of CO accumulate in your home, giving you time to get out, have your home inspected, and correct the problem before your life and health are in danger. As with a fire alarm, you’ll want to test your CO alarm periodically and change the batteries when needed.
What to Do When the CO Alarm Sounds
First off, you must NEVER ignore it, but you don’t need to panic either. Remember, the alarm is there to help you correct the problem before your life is in danger.
- Immediately move to fresh air.
- Open doors and windows to let fresh air into your home.
- Call 911 or other emergency service to have investigators dispatched to your home.
- If symptoms of CO poisoning are present, seek medical attention immediately.
- Do not reenter your home until investigators give you the all-clear.
- Have the source of CO investigated.
- Have all appliances investigated to determine the source of the CO. Repair or replace any offending appliances.
You probably already know about the benefits of having a working smoke detector in case of a fire and a good home security system to protect you from intruders.
We hope this article has given you some helpful information on how to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning. Protect yourself and your family against a significant threat to your life and health — the silent killer known as carbon monoxide.