Preventing Carbon Dioxide Poisoning in the Home
Ovens and grills help us stay fed. Heaters keep us warm. Cars take us where we want to go. Generators provide backup power.
But whenever we turn on these devices that run on natural gas, charcoal, gasoline, wood, or other such fuels, we have to use them right away.
That’s because these apparatuses put out a little bit of CO when they’re working properly, but if they’re out of order, or if they are used in the wrong places, the fumes can build up. The result can be life-threatening.
Do you know that carbon monoxide (CO) is the most common cause of poisoning death in the U.S.?
Unintentional CO poisonings are responsible for about 500 deaths and 15,000 visits to emergency rooms each year. Older adults over 65 years of age are especially vulnerable to unintentional CO poisoning due to their higher frequency of pre-existing medical conditions.
Someone asleep can die from carbon monoxide poisoning without ever waking up. That’s all the more reason to make sure your home is safe.
Think such catastrophes are not possible in today’s homes? In mid-February, the winter storm in Texas was the worst carbon monoxide poisoning incident in recent history, according to the experts interviewed by The Texas Tribune and NBC News. At least 11 people died, and more than 1,400 residents sought emergency care for CO poisoning during the storm, data shows.
What is Carbon Monoxide (CO)?
CO is a colorless, odorless gas that can cause illness and death. As mentioned, it is formed whenever any fuel, such as natural gas, propane, gasoline, etc., is burned. Devices that generate CO include cars, boats, gasoline engines, stoves, and heating systems.
CO from these sources can quickly accumulate in enclosed or semi-enclosed spaces. When people inhale CO, the toxic gas passes into the bloodstream and prevents oxygen from being absorbed into the body, damaging tissues and ultimately leading to death.
What are the symptoms of CO poisoning?
Since CO has no odor, color, or taste, it cannot be detected by our senses. This means hazardous concentrations of the gas can build up indoors, and humans have no means to identify the problem until they become ill. Moreover, when people become sick, the symptoms are like the flu, which can cause victims to overlook the initial indications of CO poisoning.
For most persons, the early signs of exposure to small concentrations of CO include a slight headache and breathlessness with mild exercise.
Sustained or acute exposure can lead to those aforementioned flu-like symptoms, including more serious headaches, dizziness, fatigue, nausea, bewilderment, irritability, impaired judgment, recall, and dexterity.
Note: You can tell the difference between CO poisoning and the flu with these clues. With CO poisoning:
- You feel better when you are away from home.
- Everyone in the home is sick at the same time (the flu virus typically spreads from person to person).
- The family members most affected spend the most time in the house.
- Indoor pets appear ill, exhibiting symptoms such as drowsiness and lethargy (human flu viruses are not transmitted to pets).
- You don’t have a fever or body aches and you don’t have swollen lymph nodes that are common with the flu and some other ailments.
- Symptoms appear or seem to get worse when using fuel-burning equipment or running a vehicle in an attached garage.
CO is often called the “silent killer” because if these early signs are disregarded, a person might lose consciousness rendering them incapable of escaping danger.
CO is particularly threatening to infants, toddlers, pregnant women, and persons with conditions such as emphysema, asthma, or cardiovascular disease. Individuals engaging in strenuous activity have also been found to be at greater risk. Under such circumstances, even smaller amounts of fumes can be harmful.
You also need to be aware that breathing smaller concentrations of CO may not cause any clear symptoms of poisoning, yet exposure to low levels can bring about long-term health problems, even after the CO source is removed. These health consequences can involve continuing neurological losses such as learning and memory impairments, emotional and personality outcomes, and sensory and motor disorders.
How is carbon monoxide poisoning treated?
The best treatment is oxygen therapy. Breathing pure oxygen can bring the oxygen levels in the blood back to normal. There are two types of oxygen therapy:
- 100 percent oxygen therapy. For this treatment, you breathe oxygen through a mask. This is the most common treatment.
- Hypobaric oxygen therapy. For this treatment, you lie inside a chamber that delivers oxygen under high pressure. This quickly reduces carbon monoxide levels in the blood.
With quick treatment, most people recover within a few days. But long-term problems can appear later. Be sure to tell the doctor about any changes in vision, coordination or behavior that occur in the weeks following treatment.
If you experience symptoms that you think could be from CO poisoning, you should:
- Get fresh air immediately. Open doors and windows and turn off stoves, ovens, heaters, and similar appliances and leave the house.
- Call a poison center immediately at 1-800-222-1222. The poison experts there will let you know if you need to seek further medical attention.
- Don’t go back into the house until it’s deemed safe. Your fire department or other emergency response team can help you figure that out.
Bottom line: CO poisoning is entirely preventable!
You can protect yourself and your family by learning the symptoms of CO poisoning and paying attention to the causes and preventive measures of CO poisoning.
Okay, what can be done to prevent CO poisoning? How can my family and I avoid this danger?
Half of all unintentional CO poisoning deaths could be prevented with the use of CO alarms. While CO alarms can save lives, unfortunately, fewer than one-third of American homes have them installed.
Such alarms should be Underwriters Laboratories (UL) approved and are generally available at local hardware stores or other retailers. But, again, the cost is minimal, and in view of the possibility that it might save the lives of you and your family, it’s a genuine bargain.
Install a CO alarm on every floor of your home and within the hearing range of each sleeping area.
When installing multiple alarms, connect them all together. That way, if one of them detects trouble, they all go off.
Carefully follow manufacturers’ instructions for their placement, use, and maintenance. According to the U.S Environmental Protection Agency, because carbon monoxide is light, alarms should be placed on a wall five feet above the floor. They can also be placed on the ceiling. Alarms should be tested at least once a month.
Keep in mind, too, that CO alarms need regular maintenance. Many come equipped with a battery backup to ensure uninterrupted operation, even if the power goes out. But you’ll need to remember to change your batteries at the frequency recommended by the manufacturer as you do with your smoke detectors.
Unlike smoke alarms, however, CO alarms may expire after several years. The typical lifespan of a CO alarm is between 5 and 7 years, but it varies by manufacturer. Consult the product packaging or manufacturer for a recommended replacement date.
What does a carbon monoxide alarm look like?
Some are white and round, similar to smoke detectors, while others are rectangular. Any approved device should be clearly labeled “carbon monoxide alarm.” You still need a carbon monoxide alarm if you have a smoke detector, but combination units are available. CO alarms can either be battery-powered or hard-wired with a battery backup.
Warning: Don’t let purchasing a CO alarm lull you into a false sense of security. CO alarms should only be considered a backup for proper use and maintenance of your fuel-burning appliances.
Keep your vents clear
During and after a storm, make sure nothing is obstructing the outside stack or vent for your dryer, stove, furnace, and fireplace.
Take special care to prevent snow from building up and blocking these critical exists for dangerous gases.
Know the signs of a potential CO problem. By keeping your eyes open, you may spot evidence that appliances are out of whack or something else is wrong. A few danger signs:
- Streaks of soot around fuel-burning appliances or fallen soot in a fireplace
- Cracked or crumbling masonry on a chimney
- Absence of an upward draft in your chimney
- Excess moisture and condensation on windows, walls, and cold surfaces
- Rusting on flue pipes or appliance jacks
- Orange or yellow flame in combustion appliances (the flame should be blue)
- Damaged or discolored bricks at the top of the chimney
If you see any of these, have a trained technician check them out and fix whatever needs it.
Do not run engines in closed areas
Proper ventilation is critical to avoiding CO poisoning.
If your garage is attached to your home, don’t leave a vehicle running there. Even with the garage door open, the fumes can seep inside your house, and CO gas can quickly build up to toxic levels. If your vehicle has a tailgate, be sure to open windows anytime you drive with the tailgate down. If you don’t, carbon monoxide can be sucked into the vehicle.
Items such as camp stoves and fuel-burning lanterns should never be used inside, including inside a tent, RV, or cabin.
During the summer months when grilling is most popular, never use a barbeque grill or hibachis indoors. This includes poorly ventilated places such as garages, campers, and tents.
In addition, fireplaces and wood-burning stoves should be checked professionally once a year or as recommended by the manufacturer. Also, check to ensure the flue is open during operation. Finally, proper use, inspection, and regular maintenance of vent-free fireplaces (and space heaters) are recommended.
Yes, CO poisoning cases are higher during the winter months, but there are situations where people can be exposed to high levels of CO during the summer. For example, if you’re a boater, you need to be aware of the exhaust area at the back of the boat and should tow passengers at least 20 feet from this area. Plus, be aware of exhaust from neighboring vessels when parked near them. You can also install a CO alarm in the cabin of your boat.
The Center for Disease Control has noted that CO poisoning cases have resulted from the use of power generators during power outages. Portable generators can produce more CO than modern cars and can kill people in a short amount of time.
That means don’t use them in your garage or basement. It’s recommended that users place generators at least 25 feet away from and downwind of a house. Also, be sure that there are no vents or openings near the generator that would allow excess exhaust to enter the home.
Have your heating systems, water heater, and any other gas, oil, or coal-burning appliances serviced by a qualified technician every year. Contact the service professionals at J&A South Park for an appointment.
More information is available on the web.