As we descend into winter and the temperatures get colder, one “silent killer” that lurks in our homes is carbon monoxide also called CO. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), on average, “…more than 150 people in the Unites States die every year from accidental non-fire related carbon monoxide poisoning associated with consumer products.” According to the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors, “Out of all reported non-fire carbon monoxide incidents, 89% or almost nine out of 10 of them take place in a home.” Most carbon monoxide exposures occur during the winter months, December, January, and February.

Carbon monoxide is created in homes by the burning of fuels such as wood, kerosene, natural gas, coal, fuel oil, and propane in fuel-burning appliances such natural gas-powered furnaces, water heaters, stoves/ovens, and clothes dryer. Other examples include fireplaces, wood/coal stoves, and unvented space heaters that use kerosene or propane as the fuel. It is created when fuel-burning appliances are not, either, operated correctly or maintained correctly.

Carbon monoxide, also referred to as CO, is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, and hazardous gas. When inhaled into the lungs, the carbon monoxide is accepted into the bloodstream leaving no room for the oxygen so the blood transports carbon monoxide throughout the bloodstream and not oxygen with this process effectively suffocating a person. Carbon monoxide can poison slowly over a period of several hours in low amounts. Sensitive organs, such as the brain, heart and lungs, suffer the most from a lack of oxygen. At low amounts, it will require a longer period of time for carbon monoxide to affect the body. This is called carbon monoxide poisoning.

Because carbon monoxide is odorless, colorless, and otherwise undetectable to the human senses, people may not know that they are being exposed. The initial symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are similar to that of the flu (but without the fever). The symptoms include headache, fatigue, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, nausea, and dizziness. As the “poisoning” continues, more severe symptoms are exhibited including mental confusion, vomiting, loss of muscle coordination, loss of consciousness, and ultimately death.

Because the symptoms of carbon monoxide appear slowly over hours or days, carbon monoxide poisoning is mistakenly thought of as the flu and goes undiagnosed which leads to tragic deaths. One thing to take notice of is do the symptoms you are feeling get worse when you are at home and seem to lessen or disappear when you are away from home. This could be an indication that the symptoms you are feeling are that of potential carbon monoxide poisoning and not the flu.

The best protection is two-fold. First operate and maintain fuel-burning appliance correctly and installing carbon monoxide detectors in your home.

Operating and maintaining fuel-burning appliances correctly means following the manufacturer’s instructions on proper installation, use, and maintenance. Have your home heating system (including chimneys and vents) inspected and serviced annually by a trained service technician. There are many clues that cannot be seen unless specifically trained to look for them such as internal appliance damage or malfunctioning components, improper burner adjustments, or hidden blockage or damage to vents or chimneys. You should look at your vents and chimney for loose or improper connections, visible cracks, or rust stains. Also, consider are your fuel-burning appliances working correctly. Does your furnace run more or never shuts off? Does your water heater not heat as fast as it used to? Does it take longer for your clothes to dry? Does your wood/coal stove not put off as much heat as it used to? If you notice any of these situations, call a trained service technician.

Install battery-operated carbon monoxide alarms or plug-in carbon monoxide alarms with battery backup in your home in the hallway near the bedrooms in each separate sleeping area. The carbon monoxide alarms should be certified to the requirements of the most recent UL, IAS, or CSA standard for carbon monoxide alarms. Test your carbon monoxide alarms monthly and replace batteries every year. A carbon monoxide alarm can provide added protection against carbon monoxide poisoning, yet is no substitute for proper installation, use and upkeep of appliances that are potential carbon monoxide sources.

Because many of these fuel-burning appliances incorporate a flame to operate, it is a good idea to install fire/smoke alarms on every level of your home per the manufacturer’s instructions testing the alarms every month and replacing the batteries each year.

Inform every family member of the sound of the carbon monoxide and smoke/fire alarms so they are familiar with the sound and know what to do when an alarm sounds. Plan on what to do if an alarm is heard to include warning other family members and house guests, evacuation to a safe area outside of the home, the use of a fire extinguisher, and the calling of the fire department.

Other safety tips to prevent the accumulation of and potential exposure to carbon monoxide include:

  • Never bring a charcoal grill into the house for heating or cooking. Do not barbeque in the garage.
  • Never use a gas range or oven for heating.
  • Never leave a car running in a garage even with the garage door open.
  • Generators are also a fuel-burning equipment that can cause carbon monoxide poisoning and should not be placed indoors, basements, crawlspaces, or other confined areas. They are to be placed outdoors away from windows or other paths back into the home. Never use portable generators inside homes or garages, even if doors and windows are open. Use generators outside only, far away from the home.
  • Never operate unvented gas-burning appliances such as space heaters that use kerosene or propane as the fuel in a closed room or in a room in which you are sleeping. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for installation, use, and maintenance. Operate the heater in rooms with the window open about one inch to allow fresh air into the room and fuel the heater when it has cooled and outside of the house.

Even after doing all you can to protect your family, it is best to know the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning: headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, sleepiness, and confusion. If you suspect carbon monoxide poisoning, get outside to fresh air immediately, and then call 911.

Sources of information include the websites of Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), , and International Association of Certified Home Inspectors, .