What is Carbon Monoxide?

 Carbon monoxide (CO) is a poisonous gas released during the incomplete burning of fossil and biofuels (i.e. wood, natural gas, propane, gasoline, coal, kerosene, diesel and biodiesel) that is both colorless and odorless, and often unknown to its victims (earning its name “silent killer”). CO is typically released from fuel burning appliances within the home such as fireplaces, boilers, water heaters and furnaces. Often, the use of these appliances indoors results in the CO gases getting trapped in the area; both in the conditions of either lack of air for combustion, or with the CO being heavier than the surrounding air, the gas will not be able to escape appropriately. These unsavory incidents are a brew that is responsible for many cases of unintentional (fatal and non-fatal) CO poisoning; on average there are 165 deaths a year nationally, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and literally thousands of individuals ending up in the ER. Carbon monoxide (CO) molecules combine with the oxygen (O2) carrying molecules of the bloodstream (hemoglobin) causing a restriction of the ability to absorb oxygen, which causes the body to have the symptoms related to CO poisoning. In the event of long term exposure, and even in low amounts, the risk is greater that the bloodstream will have much higher concentrations of the carboxyhemoglobin (COHb – The bound CO molecule and the hemoglobin) which may result in such symptoms as:

  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Disorientation
  • Confusion
  • Bodily weakness
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Cardiovascular complications
  • Loss of balance/motor coordination
  • Respiratory complications/issues
  • Flu-like (unrelated to flu) sympotoms

Seek immediate treatment if symptoms of CO poisoning are present. The first things to do if you suspect CO are: after opening the doors and windows and making sure you turn off the appliances, leave the house and get fresh air and immediate medical attention. Be prepared to answer any questions about your household symptoms and the condition of the appliances and inspections on your home recently. There are many things that can be done to prevent CO poisoning in the home, and many are easy fixes and simple habits that will keep the family and all safe:

  • Have an inspection annually to maintain all fireplaces and other heating systems in the home to manufacturer standard and local codes.
  • Don’t use a fossil fuel heater that is unvented in an enclosed space, and always use the proper fuel for the type of appliance you are using.
  • Always have properly vented appliances and do not use ovens to heat the home.
  • Don’t run any engine, nor burn any charcoal inside an enclosed space.
  • Install a carbon monoxide (CO) detector
    • This should never be used as a replacement for proper maintenance of heating systems.
    • CO detectors are not considered nearly as reliable as smoke detectors.
    • Cost is not what should determine a CO detector purchase, buy based on features
    • Look for features such as a long term warranty and self-test and reset features
    • Place CO detectors nearest sleeping places
    • If the CO detector goes off:
      • Check the alarm
      • Check yourself for symptoms
      • Check household members for symptoms
      • If symptoms are present, get out of the house and seek immediate medical attention
      • If symptoms are not present, open the doors and windows and shut off sources of CO. Call a technician to inspect your home for leaks or sources of CO that are not working properly