A review of statistics available from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention showed that between the years of 1999 and 2010 an average of 430 people lost their lives due to carbon monoxide poisoning. The total deaths for that period of 12 years was over 5,000.
These were unintentional CO deaths that were not related to CO poisoning from fires. These were accidental poisonings from the exposure to carbon monoxide vapors or gases.
Carbon Monoxide is colorless, and it is odorless- it is undetectable to the human senses and you may not realize that you are being exposed to these dangerous gases until it is too late.
The initial symptoms of CO poisoning are much like the flue:
- Shortness of breath
The above are the low level symptoms, the high level poisoning lead to more severe symptoms, such as:
- Mental confusion
- Loss of muscle coordination
The severity of symptoms is related to the level of CO exposure as well as the duration someone is exposed to it. It is common for occupants to mistake mild CO poisoning for the flu, which can sometimes result in death. For high levels of exposure victims become confused rapidly, and the loss of muscular coordination will lead to death quickly.
How can this be prevented?
- All appliances should be installed and operated as directed by the manufacturer’s instructions, as well as building codes. The majority of appliances will require installation by a qualified professional.
- The heating system should be inspected by a professional and annually serviced to ensure it is operating properly. In addition, the professional should check chimney flues for blockages, or corrosion, possible disconnections or loosening connections.
- Do not attempt to service your own fuel-burning appliances unless you have the proper knowledge and skills, plus the correct tools.
- Do not operate a portable generator in an enclosed space- this includes the house, garage, shed, or any other building with at least 3 walls and a roof. Opening the doors and/or windows does not make it safer to do so.
- Do not use fuel burning camping equipment in your vehicle, a tent, garage, shed, or home. It is not designed for use within an enclosed space. If you purchase one that has been designed for use in an enclosed space, ensure you read through the instructions for safe use.
- Do not burn charcoal inside a tent, vehicle, shed, home or garage.
- Do not leave a vehicle running in a garage attached to your home, even if the garage door has been left open.
- Do not use gas appliances to heat your home- this includes ovens, ranges and clothes dryers.
- Do not use unvented fuel-burning appliances in a room where people are sleeping
- Never cover the bottom of propane or natural gas ovens with foil. This will block the combustion air flow and will produce CO.
- When renovating your home, you must ensure that tarps do not cover appliance vents or chimneys. Also ensure that debris is not blocking these areas.
- Install Carbon Monoxide alarms throughout your home. This is not a substitute for the rest of the list above, however it can provide added protection and alert you to the presence of CO in your home. CO alarms should be in every hallway where sleeping areas are- they should not be covered by curtains, or furniture. They should not be placed near heating vents or in kitchens above fuel burning appliances.
When considering what level of carbon monoxide is dangerous to your health it can depend on a number of factors. The length of exposure, the concentration of CO, and the health condition of the individual who has been exposed.
The concentration of carbon monoxide is measured in ppm (parts per million). The majority of people can withstand prolonged exposure of up to 70ppm without experiencing any systems. A heart patient, however, may begin to experience chest pain. Carbon monoxide levels above 70ppm will see the introduction of noticeable symptoms, like nausea, fatigue and headache. It is sustained exposure of CO concentration levels over 150pmm that lead to disorientation, and possibly death.
If you believe you’re experiencing CO poisoning symptoms head outside for fresh air immediately. Call the fire department to report your symptoms from your cell phone, or a neighbor’s home. Do not re-enter your home under any circumstances. Contact your doctor to explain your circumstances and have CO poisoning confirmed. If your doctor confirms this, you must employ a qualified technician to check all of your appliances. Do not operate them until this has been completed.
The purpose of the carbon monoxide alarm is to detect levels of CO before they reach life threatening levels. The manufacturer instructions should be followed for installation and use of the CO alarm. To ensure it is operating use the test button. This tests whether the circuitry is operating, but not the sensors accuracy. CO alarms are not lifetime guaranteed, so it’s important to check the instructions to find out when it should be replaced.
If your CO alarm sounds do not ignore it, and do not search for the source. Get out of the home immediately into fresh air. Call the emergency services and ensure that everyone is accounted for. Do not go back into your home until the emergency services have cleared you to do so. Re-entering your home could result in death. If a malfunctioning appliance has been determined as the CO source, make sure it is off and do not operate it until it has been serviced for a qualified technician.
If you have been cleared by emergency services to reenter your home and the alarm reactivates within 24 hours repeat the steps above. However, follow up by calling a qualified technician to investigate and repair the source. If possible stay elsewhere for the evening.
CO Alarms should comply with UL 2034 and will state this on the packaging.
Here’s a great video that talks about carbon monoxide: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lMnaLKlVXxo