Carbon Monoxide: The Silent Killer

CO detector
Do you have a smoke detector installed in your home? Of course! How about a carbon monoxide detector? Uhm, probably not. In fact, less than 30 percent of homes in the United States have one installed.

Which is unfortunate because they are a simple and affordable way to protect your family from carbon monoxide poisoning. Carbon monoxide is often called the “silent killer” because it is colorless and odorless, making it very hard to detect without an alarm.

In the United States, almost 400 people die and 20,000 people have to visit the ER for unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning every year. The biggest risk is in the winter months when people are using gas appliances to keep warm.

What is carbon monoxide?

Carbon monoxide is a colorless and odorless gas that is found in the combustion fumes of things like cars, small gasoline engines, generators, fireplaces, stoves, lanterns, and heating systems. It is caused by the incomplete combustion of fuels like natural gas, oil, gasoline, propane, wood, and charcoal.

Why is it dangerous?

When carbon monoxide builds up in an enclosed or a semi-enclosed space, it can cause severe side effects or even death. If there is too much carbon monoxide in the air, it inhibits the body’s ability to carry oxygen throughout the body. This can lead to tissue damage and eventually death.

What are the symptoms?

Because the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are very similar to the flu or other illnesses, it can be very hard to diagnose.

Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include headaches, fatigue, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, weakness, and burning eyes. As the carbon monoxide builds up in your blood, you may start to experience vision problems, seizures, drowsiness, confusion, loss of consciousness, chest pain, fast breathing, accelerated heart rate, and eventually death. Carbon monoxide poisoning is particularly dangerous because the symptoms can make it hard to respond to and escape from the situation. Depending on the level of exposure, the symptoms can come on very gradually or within minutes.

Young children are particularly at risk because of their high metabolic rates and will often show symptoms earlier. Individuals who are sleeping or intoxicated are also at a greater risk because they are unable to recognize any symptoms before it is too late.

How do I protect my family?

The first thing you should do is to purchase enough carbon monoxide (or CO) detectors to install outside every sleeping area in your home and on every level. Be sure to follow the manufacturers’ recommendations and to test the alarms once a month. Alarms should be replaced after 5 to 7 years.

If your alarm goes off don’t assume that it is a false alarm. Get everybody in the house outside to fresh air and leave the door open on the way out. Make sure everybody is accounted for and then call the fire department. If anybody is experiencing symptoms, call 911 immediately.

However, CO detectors aren’t always a 100 percent accurate and you will still need to be careful. Here are some tips on how to properly maintain and use your fuel burning appliances.

  • Don’t use your stove or oven to heat your house.
  • Don’t use a generator, grill, or camping stove in your home, garage, or outside by a window.
  • Don’t leave your car running inside your garage.
  • Don’t sleep in a room with an unvented kerosene or gas space heater.
  • Don’t block any of the vents for your furnace, stove, dryer, and fireplace.
  • Every year schedule to have all your gas, oil or coal burning appliances tested.
  • Keep your chimney cleaned and properly maintained. Blocked chimneys are often the culprit with carbon monoxide poisoning.

You should also be aware of the following carbon monoxide poisoning danger signs:

  • Everybody in your house starts to experience the same symptoms at the same time.
  • Your symptoms improve when you leave the house and get worse again when you return.
  • You can smell gas when your heating system or other fuel-burning equipment is turned on.
  • The air feels stuffy and stale inside your home.

 

Sources:
Carbon Monoxide Poisoning (CDC)
Carbon Monoxide Fact Sheet (Safe Kids)

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