Carbon monoxide (CO) is a deadly, colorless, odorless, poisonous gas that is slightly lighter than air, so it moves like a ghost. It is produced by the incomplete burning of various fuels, including coal, wood, charcoal, oil, kerosene, propane, and natural gas. Products and equipment powered by internal combustion engine-powered equipment such as portable generators, cars, and power washers also produce CO.
2. How many people are unintentionally poisoned by CO?
On average, about 170 people in the USA die every year from CO produced by non-automotive consumer products. These products include malfunctioning fuel-burning appliances such as furnaces, ranges, water heaters and room heaters; engine-powered equipment such as portable generators; fireplaces; and charcoal that is burned in homes and other enclosed areas. In 2005 alone, CPSC staff is aware of at least 94 generator-related CO poisoning deaths. Forty-seven of these deaths were known to have occurred during power outages due to severe weather, including Hurricane Katrina. Still others die from CO produced by non-consumer products, such as cars left running in attached garages. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that several thousand people go to hospital emergency rooms every year to be treated for CO poisoning.
3. What are the symptoms of CO poisoning?
Because CO is odorless, colorless, and otherwise undetectable to the human senses, people may not know that they are being exposed. The initial symptoms of low to moderate CO poisoning are similar to the flu (but without the fever). They include:
Initial Symptoms: High Level CO Poisoning Results:
Headache Mental Confusion
Shortness of breath Loss of Muscular Coordination
Nausea Loss of Consciousness
Dizziness Ultimately death
4. How can I prevent CO Poisoning?
Make sure appliances are installed and operated according to the manufacturer's instructions and local building codes. The inspector should also check chimneys and flues for blockages, corrosion, partial and complete disconnections, and loose connections.
· Never service fuel-burning appliances without proper knowledge, skill and tools.
· Never operate a portable generator or any other gasoline engine-powered tool either in or near an enclosed space such as a garage, house, or other building. Even with open doors and windows, these spaces can trap CO and allow it to quickly build to lethal levels.
· Install a CO alarm that meets the requirements of the current UL 2034 or CSA 6.19 safety standards. A CO alarm can provide some added protection, but it is no substitute for proper use and upkeep of appliances that can produce CO. Install a CO alarm in the hallway near every separate sleeping area of the home. Make sure the alarm cannot be covered up by furniture or draperies.
· Never use portable fuel-burning camping equipment inside a home, garage, vehicle or tent unless it is specifically designed for use in an enclosed space and provides instructions for safe use in an enclosed area.
· Never burn charcoal inside a home, garage, vehicle, or tent.
· Never leave a car running in an attached garage, even with the garage door open.
· Never use gas appliances such as ranges, ovens, or clothes dryers to heat your home.
· Never operate unvented fuel-burning appliances in any room where people are sleeping.
· Do not cover the bottom of natural gas or propane ovens with aluminum foil. Doing so blocks the combustion air flow through the appliance and can produce CO.
5. What should I do if I am experiencing symptoms of CO poisoning and do not have a CO alarm, or my CO alarm is not going off?
If you think you are experiencing any of the symptoms of CO poisoning, get outside to fresh air immediately. Leave the home and call your fire department to report your symptoms from a neighbor’s home. It is also important to contact a doctor immediately for a proper diagnosis. Tell your doctor that you suspect CO poisoning is causing your problems. Prompt medical attention is important if you are experiencing any symptoms of CO poisoning. If the doctor confirms CO poisoning, make sure a qualified service person checks the appliances for proper operation before reusing them.
6. As of July 1, 2009, all dwelling units must have an operational Carbon Monoxide Detector installed within fifteen feet of the entrance to each room lawfully used for sleeping purposes when the residence: Uses fuel-fired appliances, such as water heaters, furnaces or fireplaces; Has an attached garage; Is undergoing interior alterations, repairs, fuel-fired appliance replacements, or additions; or where one or more rooms lawfully used for sleeping purposes are added.
7. How should I install a CO Alarm? CO alarms should be installed according to the manufacturer's instructions. CPSC recommends that one CO alarm be installed on each level of your home in the hallway outside the bedrooms from an outlet level to less than 6 or 7 inches from the ceiling and not more than 15 feet from the farthest bedroom for each separate sleeping area. Never install next to a window that can be opened. Also, install carbon monoxide detectors at least 10 feet from sources of humidity like bathrooms and showers. Hard wired or plug-in CO alarms should have battery backup. Avoid locations that are near heating vents or that can be covered by furniture or draperies. CPSC does not recommend installing CO alarms in kitchens or above fuel-burning appliances. Write the date purchased on the back of each alarm for future reference.
8. What should you do when the CO alarm sounds?
Never ignore a CO alarm! It is warning you of a potentially deadly hazard!
If the alarm signal sounds do not try to find the source of the CO:
· Immediately move outside to fresh air.
· After calling 911, do a head count to check that all persons are accounted for. DO NOT reenter the premises until the emergency services responders have given you permission. You could lose consciousness and die if you go in the home.
· If the source of the CO is determined to be a malfunctioning appliance, DO NOT operate that appliance until it has been properly serviced by trained personnel.
· Fatalities: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates CO poisoning kills 500 people annually in the U.S.
Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC Document #466)